April 20, 2011

Bushwhacking Olsen Creek – Act I

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 5:48 pm

On our last Senior Trailblazers hike of 2010 we explored some trails on Stewart Mountain east of Lake Whatcom in hopes of getting to a spot with a nice view of the Twin Sisters. But we were not successful – the trails that I thought would join just below the view don’t quite. But there is a point where they are only about a quarter mile apart at about the same elevation. The woods at this point looked pretty open – the usual number of fallen trees and debris but not a lot of underbrush – so I had been planning for the last few months to get back up there and see if I could find a usable path between the trails. By last Tuesday (4/12) the mountain, which is visible from the north side of Bellingham, seemed to be largely free of snow so I packed up my GPS, some orange flagging tape, a pruning shears and a small saw and set off to see what I could see.

The bushwhack is the pink line

The bushwhack is the pink line

I got a late start (9:30) so it took me until about 11:00 to cover the 3.2 miles from the Whatcom Backcountry Horsemen’s trailhead on Y Road to the point where Trail #8 comes closest to what I call the Ogallala Trail (near its start some displaced Nebraskan has tacked up a sign “Ogallala 1,450 mi”).

On the right is a map of the area. The brownish line coming in from the top of the map  is Trail #5, the one that crosses Olsen Creek and climbs very steeply up to join Trail #8 (near wear the yellow track comes in from the east) and proceeds on south and turns and heads off the west side of the map. See DJan’s blog for a description of our recent adventure in this area. The green track is the Ogallala Trail that goes to the Sisters View at its eastern end and leads back to the west to the Y Road trailhead. The yellow line is a road that goes through a new clearcut – see this blog post for a description that misadventure.

My plan was to go from the north end of the pink line to the south end. If you enlarge the map (by clicking it) you can see that the two ends are at about the same elevation, roughly 2100-2150 feet. I intended to follow along the contour and try to keep pressing uphill (to the east) and gain some elevation as I went – if I got high enough I might hit one of the other of the Ogallala’s zigs and zags, which would be cool; if I were to veer too far to the west I would lose elevation and miss that part of the Ogallala altogether, which would be very uncool.

The plan worked pretty well, if I do say so myself. There is an inviting open swale leading slightly uphill in a southerly direction. The going was slow since I stopped to put up a lot of pieces of flagging tape, and sometimes backtracked when I found a better path, but the going was not very difficult.

The worst spots were the two stream crossing – the streams are small and easy to step across once you get to them, but their steep little “canyons” present a bit of challenge. Instead of just charging down to the stream and climbing back up the other side, I tried to keep to a contour line and travel back up the “canyon” (really more of a “notch”) to meet the stream on my level. And then there are the logs that inevitably gravitate, quite literally, to the bottom of any stream bed.

After a little over an hour I ended up a bit on the high side of the destination, but not as much as I’d hoped, even though I was consciously pressing uphill the whole way. It was striking to me how easy it is to lose elevation when you are off trail. Every time you step around an obstacle, chances are you’ll choose the downhill side and it all adds up. Or subtracts down. Or whatever.

The senior hiking group is scheduled to go Olsen Creek tomorrow, but we didn’t specify which of the several trails. Perhaps if it turns out to be a fine day the lure of a great mountain view will enable me to talk my friends into trying this loop. The whole thing (up Trail #8, over to the Ogallala, up to the Sisters View and back down the Ogallala) would add up to about 9-10 miles.

GPS Aggravation

My Garmin GPSMap 60CSx is supposed to be the best thing for hikers since convertible pants but I have had issues with its accuracy since I got it. Well, not really the accuracy: the problem is inconsistency and internal disagreements. For the length of a hike, I will normally get very different readings from the odometer (and other readings which add up all the little distances as you go along) and the length of the track log (which saves points at intervals as you go along and then adds up the distances between the saved points). The latter will usually be much lower, since the gadget seems to interpret the fact that I am moving very slowly (being a very old person going up very steep hills) as if I were stopped, so it doesn’t add anything to the total distance.

On the other hand the track log usually overstates the distance because there are small errors in each position reading (maybe 10 to 30 feet) so when I really AM stopped it sees my location as randomly popping 10 feet this way and 20 feet that way, etc., etc. and adds in all those spurious distances when calculating the total. This is still, I believe, the more accurate reading especially since I can easily find and delete the extra stuff after I upload the track to my computer, where they seldom changes the length by more that a tenth of a mile.

I just hate those “usually”s – the rare instances when the odometer is actually reads higher than the track log completely boggle my mind.

(BTW, Garmin and REI have both demonstrated a stunning lack of interest in such things. The fact that everything works perfectly and consistently when using the device in a car or even when walking quickly shows that it is software failure in the way they are handling the (admittedly difficult) problem of using a (necessarily) imperfect location to detect whether one is truly stopped or just puttering around like a drunken snail. Did I mention that this device is NOT an automotive GPS and is marketed specifically to hikers?)

The most definitive, but by no means unique, errors I’ve seen are these two: One day at the start of the Goat Mountain hike, which starts with some very broad switchbacks, I noticed after 4 or 5 switchbacks that the odometer reading was significantly less than the straight-line distance back to the trailhead. Mr. Euclid would have something to say about that.

More is not better

On the Boundary Way hike one time, I happened to notice that the trailhead was very close to 4300 feet elevation (according to Garmin) and the summit was almost exactly 5300′. The overall grand total elevation gain was 750′, however. Mr. Euclid would be no less displeased with that outcome.

Anyways, on this bushwhack it occurred to me to try fiddling with the GPS’s settings. It allows you to choose to have it save points more or less often than “normal” and I wanted a very accurate track, so I selected the option of “most often”. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but the result was pretty awful. The second illustration is an enlargement of a portion of the resulting track. Admittedly I was not moving in a very straight line, but that’s ridiculous! The straight line distance for the trip (the pink line in the upper map) is 0.2 mile but the GPS track log distance was 1.6 miles. Maybe “less often” would work better.


  1. That last image is actually funny enough to make me laugh out loud! I’ve been on some of those trips, Al, but that is pretty ridiculous. Good thing Fred also carries a GPS so we can take an average. I’m up for whatever we decide to do tomorrow, although the rain gauge went from 10% to 50%, so I’ll be ready for some moisture, although I think I’ve had quite enough, thank you!

    Comment by DJan — April 20, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

  2. […] was not satisfied with the route I’d found on my previous trip up Trail #8 in the Olsen Creek trail “system” so I headed back there on April 18th. […]

    Pingback by Bushwhacking Olsen Creek – Act II « GeezerHiker — May 3, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

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