February 28, 2012

The British are Coming!

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 8:08 pm

PNT sign

On a cold, sunny Monday morning I set out to explore the so-called British Army Trail on Blanchard Mountain, part of the Pacific Northwest Trail system or PNT. We have poked around the upper end of the trail near Lizard Lake on past hikes but had never investigated it further. The trail is marked on the PNT map of the Blanchard area and I attempted to trace it onto my Garmin mapping software BaseCamp so that I could transfer  it to my handheld GPS unit. That trace told me to expect about 3.2 miles of hiking to get to Lizard Lake from the trailhead near Lake Samish, although that would probably be a low estimate since the map can’t show all the squiggles of a mountain trail.

The drainage is poor at times.

From the trailhead on Summerland Road, where there is room for several cars, I started hiking on an old logging road. In about a mile, after crossing a bridge over Bear Creek, it quickly deteriorated (i.e., improved) into something that was more like a trail. The drainage in spots was less than perfect (see photo on the right) but it was always manageable. In one steep section, water was pouring right down the center of the path and had cut through the soil to the bedrock.

I could see the occasional PNT blaze marking (a vertical white paint stripe about 3″ wide and 6″long) on a tree but they were few and far between and turning rather grey and tree-colored – this is not one of the best-maintained elements of the PNT. (I talked to Pat this morning and he said that there is some work going on, but there are some landowner relationship issues in places where the trail crosses private land.)

When this trail segment popped out onto a road after about a mile I saw the two vertically stacked blazes that signify a turn but was reminded that the PNT system does not tell you which way to turn. (Pat also tells me that they are working on this, too.) I think the idea is that when you get to such a place you are supposed to look both ways and you will see a blaze and can head toward it. This has a predictable shortcoming on a poorly maintained trail – no blaze in sight. I went left for a bit and then back to the right and ultimately spied some faded old blazes which led me for about a quarter mile up the road and to a short section of trail.

rabbit tracks on a tree

The next road segment was longer and was well blazed – too well, as it turns out. I had traced the printed PNT map, rather roughly, onto my GPS and had stayed reasonably close to the trace, so I knew I had to start moving to my left soon for the climb to Lizard Lake. Then, sure enough, on my left I see a tree next to a road going off to the left with four, count ’em, four prominent blazes in a pattern that looked like a rabbit’s tracks in the snow. All in all, it seemed like a good idea to turn, and there was only one way to turn (and that red mark at the bottom of the picture is part of an arrow pointing in the same direction), so I turned.

Oh, there it is!

Oh, there it is!

In a short distance, maybe 100 yards, there was a very rough hint of a trail headed uphill on the right. It was tempting but it had no markings at all to suggest PNT or that it went anywhere, so I gave it a miss and headed on up the road. Pretty soon I started stepping on some snow (about 1200′ elevation) and the road kept on to east with no signs or blazes. From the good condition and direction of travel, I began to suspect that I was on road B-1000 which wraps way around the east side of the mountain and leads to the trailheads we usually use near Barrel Springs Road. That was not at all where I wanted to be, so I decided to go back and try something else.

At about the point where I passed the scratch trail I could suddenly see gleaming, clear as day, a fresh white stripe on a tree along the road where I would have gone if I had just ignored the “rabbit tracks” altogether! (In the picture, we are looking back at the “rabbit tracks” tree on the right and the blaze is just left of center in the distance.) I am not exactly the Most Observant Person in the world (actually I am in the running for “Least”) but I might have been able to see that blaze the first time if the “rabbit tracks” hadn’t distracted me. (BTW Pat tells me that that scratch trail was for real – it was roughed in a couple of years ago but never to full PNT standards. Next time…)

British Army Trail

British Army Trail

Anyways, none the worse for wear, I headed on up the road, still hoping for a turn to the left. When the road took a distinct curve to the right and started going downhill, and my GPS again showed divergence from my tracery, I turned around and marched back once more. As I came around the curve there was a perfectly obvious and excellent trail taking off across its own little culvert! I had walked blithely past it five minutes before and it is hard to imagine how I missed it – there were even some blazes on a tree across from the trail. Now the trail was angled back a little and the blazes were small and faded, but I still got a good number of points in the Least Observant Person standings.

Well it is way too late to make a long story short, but suffice it to say that this was indeed the vaunted British Army Trail, well blazed and marked by the sign at the start of this post. It is a bit steep in spots but is in great condition; it curves up to the south and east and joins the rest of the Blanchard Mountain trail system along the shore of Lizard Lake.

After a short lunch break, I was surprised when my GPS let me know that I had gone 4.8 miles and gained nearly 2000 feet of elevation – my map tracing was only 3.2 miles and I had only been hiking for 2½ hours. On the way back I somehow managed to avoid my earlier missteps and logged 4.2 miles, making this a reasonable hike for the Senior Trailblazers. It reminded me a little of the Anderson Mountain hike, since almost half of the trip is on roads, but some of the roads are pretty old and shaded. And all in all it was a pleasant walk. On a blustery day we could hunker down for lunch (as I did) at Lizard Lake; or take the short trip up to North Butte for a nice view if the weather was good.

For all you map lovers out there, here’s a copy of my tracks (using Garmin BaseCamp software)

British Army Trail Map

British Army Trail Map

Legend: The red tracks are trails and the blue are roads. The drab green, angular line is my tracing from the PNT map. And the pinkish pigtails are places where I went off in the wrong direction.

February 14, 2012

Olsen Creek Seed Orchard

Filed under: Hiking — geezerwriter @ 7:14 pm
New, "improved" road

New, "improved" road

This morning I popped over to the other side of Lake Whatcom to have a look at the trail that we are scheduled to hike on Thursday. Pat had called me last week to report that there was some logging activity and that the road (which we have to follow for the first half mile or so to reach the trails) was closed on weekdays. Nursing a faint hope that they might be done working, I wanted to take a look.


Trailhead - I was beginning to feel unwelcome

The first clue that I was to be disappointed came on the Y Road about a quarter mile before the parking lot when I passed what had previously been a mostly overgrown and almost unnoticeable side road. It has been widened and freshly graveled and is very, very noticeable! To the left of center in the photo (click to enlarge), the road is heading toward a tree plantation that had always piqued my curiosity – you can perhaps make out that the trees are in neat rows, with no underbrush.

The trailhead parking lot is maintained by the Whatcom Backcountry Horsemen and is very popular with dog walkers, but today it was empty. And the trailhead itself (picture on the left) was liberally festooned with signs clearly designed to make the casual visitor feel less than welcome. I had hoped to poke around a little and try to see to what extent the trails were being gobbled up, but the sounds of the big boys’ Tonka trucks in the distance combined with the signs to quell my impatience.

Looking east (uphill)

Looking east (uphill)

Pivoting 90 degrees from the trailhead, I could see one big orange machine across the field to the east, just barely visible in the photo on the right. It looked like one of those long, articulated grabbers that can toss trees around like matchsticks. That, combined with the absence of the sound of chain saws and falling trees, tended to confirm Pat’s estimate that they are done with the cutting and into the cleanup phase.

Longview sign

Longview Fibre Company sign

The trailhead also sported a big public relations sign from the Longview Fibre Company (or Longview Timber Company, depending on which sign you believe) telling the story of the Olsen Creek Seed Orchard, that stand of trees (sort of) visible in my first picture. I ran it through some optical character recognition software to get a version that is a bit easier to read:

What’s Happening Here at the Olsen Creek Seed Orchard?

Georgia Pacific and Scott Paper companies joined forces to establish this site way back in 1977. Small twigs were collected from hundreds of trees scattered across Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties. These were then grafted onto special rootstock, reared in a nursery down at Clear Lake, and then outplanted here and at a duplicate site on Whidbey Island. Seed from these orchards are what’s used for reforestation today.

So why have we removed the vast majority of these orchard trees since that time? This is partly because they need plenty of daylight to produce both male catkins (pollen buds) and female flowers (cones). We thinned the Douglas fir orchards back in 2006, we’ll do the same thing this coming spring with the hemlocks.

Here are some aerial photos that were taken of the orchard and the surrounding areas back in 1998, 2006 and 2011: (Note: only the 2011 sign is shown here, and I turned it so north is up.)

Aerial photo from sign

2011 photo from sign

Wouldn’t it make more sense to have thinned these trees uniformly? Not since we know the pedigree of every tree in the orchard! A series of tests were established back in 1990 that have since told us which of these trees grow the best, which have good wood quality and which ones are well adapted to growing across a broad range of elevations and soil types. The very best of these orchard trees are what we culture for seed production today. The Washington DNR, the federal Bureau of Land Management and Oregon State University have since joined forces with timber companies across the region to breed and select the best grandchildren of these original trees!

What’s next? Pollen flows into the orchard from the firs and the hemlocks located outside of the orchard. These are just random trees, so they drastically reduce the seed quality when they pollinate the orchard trees each spring. We’ll therefore take out this source of “pollen contamination” by removing certain trees outside of the orchard. These stands will then be reforested with high-quality seedlings that will provide an excellent pollen cloud in the years to come. How’s that for attention to detail?

– Longview Timber Company, Mt. Vernon, WA

So: all I ever wanted to know about that scruffy stand of trees, and then some!

In order to orient the scene for those who have hiked there, I sent my GPS tracks (via Garmin‘s BaseCamp software) to Google Earth, and made this picture of roughly the same area:

View from space

View from space

You can see the Y Road (notice that I have adopted the curious Whatcom County style of using the definite article with rural road names. At least I think it’s only the rural ones – I haven’t heard anyone refer to “the Alabama Street” or “the Railroad Avenue”. Yet.) snaking along the left side of the picture past the locale of the new “improved” road labelled “Road Exit” and the “Olsen Creek TH”. The Seed Orchard is the genuinely artificial looking square patch just east of the road, surrounded on the east and south by the area “thinned” in 2006. (This seems to be a deeply euphemistic use of the word “thin – one might say similarly that the forests around Mount St. Helen were “thinned” by the 1980 eruption.)

The upper arrow is pointing the approximate location of the orange grabber (sort of) pictured above – that are has been pretty well “thinned” also.

The winding paths with the little circles are my GPS tracks from our December hike. We started by skirting the open (but fenced) field, crossing the road (faintly visible as a green line), twisting through the low-lying swampy area, along the fence and past the little red building (the roof shows as a bright white square) and back to the road. At that point (marked “Trail 2 lo”) the actual woodland trails into the high country (well, sort of high) start.

The big question for us hikers is whether to what extent those trails will be trashed. We can always walk to that point along the road but it would be a shame to lose those new trails. From the narrative on the sign, one might think that area is safe, being at a pretty good remove from the orchard, but who’s to know. The area between the Y Road and the orchard has been completely clearcut and they were working today well beyond the area cut in 2006.

How big a pollen cloud is required? I just can’t wrap my mind around the idea of a forest as an agricultural field – one person’s “pollen contamination” is another’s “genetic diversity”.

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