May 27, 2012

Good news and bad news and good news and …

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 1:14 pm

On Saturday Fred and I hiked up the Excelsior Pass Trail to get a close-up look at the snow conditions in the high country.

The Flume

The Flume

The good news is that there is some serious melting going on up there – early in the hike we could hear Nooksack Falls roaring through half a mile of dense forest. A bit further on that joyous noise was replaced by the roar of the stream that the trail follows toward the pass, and soon we came to the place I call The Flume, where the stream has completely stripped the soil from an almost artificially flat expanse of bedrock, forming a tempting water slide. It is always a lovely spot but it, too, was roaring more than usual.

First snow bridges

First snow bridges

The bad news is that we ran into snow at about the same place we did last year, when the deep and lasting snowpack made a mess of the local hiking season. We saw the first dab of snow on the trail at about 3700′ of elevation and the snow patches grew across the trail soon thereafter. The snow in the picture on the left is very near the point on last year’s June 16th hike where DJan’s blog (click to view) shows me trying to blast my way trough a thin snow bridge. By the time we got to 4000′ the trail was completely buried – from then on we depended on instinct and a good GPS track (from last year’s first fully successful hike to the high country – on August 11!) to continue. We did pretty well at following the trail and continued on to about 4750′, a few hundred feet higher than on the June hike last year.



But the only times we could be absolutely certain that we were still on the trail were when I punched through the snow into the cavern carved out by the meltwaters flowing along the trail. The snow was not deep enough for this so-called “postholing” to be dangerous, but it can be a bit disconcerting to be strolling along and all of a sudden be up to your unmentionables in firm, wet snow.

But the bottom line, I think, is pretty good news. Last year’s hike was in mid-June and this is still May; we scheduled it for June 7 this year and that gives us two more weeks of melting. While we probably won’t make it to the pass at that time, we should be able to have at least as good a hike as last year. (Assuming decent weather, of course. I don’t think I’d like to do a hike like this in the rain. Again.)

And all things considered, the North Cascade Highway experience seems to be an accurate omen – the DOT managed to open the highway this year two weeks earlier than last year and the snow depth gauges and yesterday’s hike all are running about two weeks ahead of last year. So it’s not likely to turn into an average snow year but with some reasonably warm weather it won’t be a complete mess.

But the best news…

Fred at viewpoint

Fred at viewpoint

is that Fred is out hiking again. In addition to the misfortune of having a full-time job, he was slammed a few months ago with a flare-up of his rheumatoid arthritis, which had been dormant for decades. Unlike the more common osteoarthritis, which is largely a matter of wear-and-tear on aging joints, RA is a tricky auto-immune disorder – the body mistakes its own tissues for a foreign invader and rallies the considerable forces of the immune system to repel the insidious “invader.” It also shows up most commonly as swollen and painful joints, but in this case it sneakily avoided treatment by presenting as debilitating pain in his leg muscles. But a few weeks ago the situation was decoded and brought under control by some powerful modern medications – yesterday’s hike was Fred’s first serious outing (almost 8 miles and 3000′ of gain, 1000 of it in the snow) in some time and it went very well.

Now is we can just do something about that darn job…


May 13, 2012

Snow in the Cascades, continued

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Weather — geezerwriter @ 12:01 pm

I started examining the snow depth situation in the North Cascades last week, and just couldn’t let it go. I had noticed that the snotels gave the water-equivalent of the snow on the ground, but my first thought was that we wanted to know the actual depth of the snow and that the water equivalent, while more useful for agriculture and Seattle City Light’s summer planning, would be kind of abstract and even a little precious for our purposes.

But I got about halfway into patching all the missing data in the snow-depth table when I noticed that the water-equivalent data didn’t have all those gaps. This makes sense to me since it seems that measuring snow-depth remotely would be a harder problem than measuring water-equivalent, just the opposite of the situation that would obtain if we were present on the site. How would you locate the top surface of the snow? A very tall pole with some sort of automated range finder looking down on the snow? On the other hand, for the water-equivalent you would just need to get the weight of the snow (OK, it’s the mass, but I’m not a physicist) above a certain area and do a little calibration and arithmetic – a suspended plate and a pressure sensor would do the trick.

It also makes sense that the WE would be more stable – a large, powdery snowfall can bump the SD way up suddenly, but it would settle back down in a few days. By spring we are looking at well-compacted snow.

The WE data may indeed be of higher quality than SD, but it not what we are looking for! [I’m somehow reminded of the old story of the drunk crawling on the ground under a streetlight searching for his car keys which he had dropped while fumbling to open the door. When a passerby pointed out that the car was half a block away, the drunk said, “Yeah, but the light’s better here.”]

So I looked more closely at a couple of years’ data. First I did a quick check of the ratio between SD and WE and found that it generally started the snow year at 10 or 12 to one (consistent with what I’d always heard that an inch of rain falling as snow will pile up a foot or more deep) and tapers down irregularly to about 2 to one by the spring (as the air is pressed out by the weight of the overlying snow). And we don’t care much about the absolute values, just how fast the snow is disappearing, so a ratio is OK.

The one value we do care about is zero – when is the snow all gone? Everywhere I checked both numbers hit zero at about the same time and that pretty much settled the issue. So here is the graph of all ten years of operation of the Middle Fork Nooksack snotel:

Note, if you will, how all the curves but two crash into horizontal axis in early July (actually June 26 to July 12). (May 31, 2005 and August 12, 2011 are the two outliers.) As before, I took the average of all the years except this year, last year and 2005 and got this picture:

On the snow-depth graph on the other posting, this year’s blue line had already crossed below last year’s green one and seemed like it might join the average group. This water-equivalent graph is less encouraging: this year peaked higher and earlier but looks like it is trying to cross 2011 – will it drop quickly or hang up there for another month? The current warm weather is a good sign (it reached over 60°F at the snotel yesterday).

My best guess is that unless we get some really toasty weather (or, even better, some nice warm rain) it will just about split the difference between last year and the average. This is also not inconsistent with the fact that the North Cascades Highway opened Thursday, about two weeks earlier than last year.


I poked around and found some info about the sensors used on the snotels. I understood hardly anything but there was a reference to a “200 inch Transducer” , suggesting that perhaps it was not a coincidence that this year’s snow fall seemed to max out right at 200 inches, but in fact overshot the sensor’s capacity.

May 9, 2012

Snow in the Cascades

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — geezerwriter @ 4:39 pm

This morning as I was sitting at my computer trying to avoid going to the gym, I recalled having a short conversation at my meeting last Sunday about Snotels. These are remote automated weather stations that have been built at various places in the mountains by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the USDA (Department of Agriculture). I had run across them in the past while poking around on my favorite weather website Weather Underground, Inc, but I never knew if they were accurate or reliable – I knew they reported snow depth, for instance, but were they measuring the actual snow depth at the moment or the total amount that had fallen or the water equivalent or what?

The man I spoke to at the American Alps meeting, a long-time employee at North Cascades National Park, was saying that they do measure actual snow depth as well as water content and are accurate enough that they are used by Seattle City Light, the Seattle utility that operates the three hydroelectric generating stations at the three big dams on the Skagit River along North Cascades Highway (SR 20).

And then this morning as I scrolled down through my local weather underground page I noticed a clutch of links to snotels in the area, two along the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River (near Lookout Mountain, called MF Nooksack, and Elbow Lake, resp.) and one on the North Fork (off Wells Creek Road). Those locations are approximate since the websites only give the latitude and longitude down to degrees and minutes, and a minute of latitude is more than a mile – I presume that don’t want unauthorized riff-raff (like me) to be able to find them. [I just had a bright idea of how to narrow the search but I’ll keep that to myself, for now.)

Anyways, the nice people at NRCS not only display current data and complete historical data for the entire lifetime of the snotel (10-20 years) in neat tables on your browser but they also package it in a machine-readable format (CSV) that can be imported into a spreadsheet application. Once there it can be manipulated and charted in all sorts of ways.

The motivation for this is that our hiking season was almost wiped out last year by the extraordinary La Nina snowfall. And we have now had a rare back-to-back La Nina this year, with near record snow depths at the Mount Baker Ski Area – great for skiers, not so much for hikers. We will be setting our July-September schedule in a few weeks and it would be nice to get an idea of when we can go where. So the first thing I did was download the data for the last two years at the MF Nooksack and Wells Creek locations, which I chose because they are in the areas where we hike in the summer and are at the sort of elevations that we hope to reach – 4900 feet and 4030 feet, respectively.

Snow Depth 2010-12 at MF Nooksack (4900′)
and Wells Creek (4030′)

The black line (on all graphs) is the current “water year”, starting on October 1, 2011. The first thing that struck me on the MF chart is the flat-topped area where it seems to be bouncing off the 200 inch line – I suspected that this might be some sort of physical limitation on the equipment. But the WC chart shows a very similar shape (at a lower level, to go with the lower elevation) so I don’t think it is an artifact. Notice also how it tracks with our experience at sea level – it is almost flat in December (which was unusually dry) with barely enough new snow to keep up with the natural settling and compaction, and then takes off after the New Year, with a monster spike in Feb and Mar, which were especially wet in town, too.

The encouraging thing is that the maximum snow depth was higher and earlier this year. Last year’s green line doesn’t peak until mid April and then hangs like Michael Jordan on a dunk well into May. I love the way this year’s line is already below last year’s – and the current warm sunny weather can’t hurt.

To get more of a context I went back and downloaded the 2010 data (the brownish line), which I remember as a more typical year. But was it really? The only way to know is to get more data…

MF Nooksack data for the years 2003 to 2012

So I fetched the entire history of the MF Nooksack snotel which went into service on October 10, 2003. Most years had some missing data (and some had a lot) so I smoothed over most of them, except 2008 (purple) which had such huge gaps that it would just be wild guessing.

This was even more encouraging – with the exception of that big hump in March we are moving close to where all but two recent years are clumped together.

On more picture: I averaged the years from 2003 to 2010 (with the exception of 2005 which is an obvious outlier on the low side) and graphed it with last year and this year, which gives a cleaner picture:

2012 and 2011 vs. the average of seven prior years

So where’s the beef? We are still well above average but well below last year. That little zag in the black line tracks with the damp, chilly weather which has been all too apparent on our recent hikes – without that we would be on a trajectory more likely to join the red line than the green one. So I think it is not too late for some warm, clear weather to rescue this year’s summer hiking season.

May 8, 2012

Mud Lake

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 9:38 am

After sitting in a meeting for most of a lovely, sunny Sunday afternoon and with the promise of another great day on Monday, I couldn’t resist the urge to get out in woods. My main excuse reason for going was that the senior hiking group is scheduled to go to Pine & Cedar Lakes this week – a popular hike that we have done many, many times – and I had heard from reliable sources that there is an unmarked trail leading from the Pine Lake spur trail down to the seldom visited, and unappealingly named, Mud Lake. The Pine & Cedar hike is fairly difficult (the first mile is quite steep) but rather short so we generally pad it by popping over to Raptor Ridge – maybe a side trip to Mud Lake would spice things up a bit.

It would definitely add a significant amount of effort to the hike. From what I could tell from two maps it would add about 2 miles to the hike each way, bringing the total to about 8 miles. Also, Mud Lake is at an elevation of about 1000 feet, 700 feet below Pine Lake, which would bring the total elevation gain for the hike up into the 2500 feet range. It did not look as if the extra 700 feet would be particularly steep, since it is spread over 2 miles; and 8 miles with 2500 feet of gain puts it among our more challenging hikes, but still within our comfort zone. (I almost choked on the word “comfort”.)

Old railroad cut

Old railroad cut

The weatherman had been right on the money – it was a beautiful morning and I dared to leave my fleece vest in the car and stuff my raincoat and long-sleeved shirt into my pack. I got a late start, hitting the trail at 9:20, and took my time on that steep first mile but still got to the Pine Lake trail (about 2 miles) at around 10:30. The turnoff to Mud Lake was not hard to find – on our last trip to Pine Lake I had noticed and wondered about it. This time it was pretty clear to me that the first part of the Pine Lake spur runs along the remnants of an old logging railroad and the Mud Lake trail is the continuation of that line. There are a couple of places where the trail passes through a narrow, and obviously artificial, cleft that is too narrow for a road but way too much effort to put into building a trail. There is also the occasional rusted piece of one-inch thick steel cable partially buried along the way.

[Most of these small mountains along the coast are laced with old logging railroads. In the latter half of the 19th century, when these hills were being stripped of timber for the first time (or two), railroads and horses were the only means of getting those pesky trees down to the saw and shake mills.]

A large mud puddle across the trail

Little mud lake

This old railroad trail continues, with occasional ups and downs and mud puddles where the slope has slumped away or an old trestle crossed a ravine, for a little over half a mile until it pops out onto a broad old logging road and begins the descent into the Samish River drainage basin. This section of road has been decommissioned and the stream culverts removed – it is shady and there is a fair amount of organic matter underfoot, so it is not an unpleasant walk. This mile is where most of the elevation loss happens.

I had thought that these conditions might continue all the way to the lake but I was pleasantly surprised when the main road turned off to the south and the way to the lake became more trail-like for the last half mile – it had also been a road at one time but was thoroughly overgrown so that only a narrow path remained.

Just as I reached the lake another newer road went off to the south and a couple of big Honda dirt bikes were parked at the side. I looked up the road and saw a medium-sized gray dog checking me out. A dog without an owner always makes me kind of nervous and I was pleased when it turned and trotted away – only then did I realize that it was a coyote. I tried to get a picture but had an episode of extraordinary clumsiness with the camera and caught little more than his ears as he passed over the crest of the hill.

Mud Lake

Mud Lake

The lake itself is pretty but unremarkable. The dirt bikes belonged to two fishermen who were out in small boats. It was now about 11:30 and I was getting a bit peckish;  I didn’t want to disturb the fishing so I just had a quick snack and headed back up the trail.

I definitely knew I was going uphill on the way back up the road, but it was just normal logging-road steepness. I got back to Pine Lake by about 1:00 (which would have been noon if I’d left at the usual time – I was on Daylight Wasting Time) and sat down for a leisurely lunch overlooking the lake and then toddled down the trail, arriving at the car at about 2:30. And I had done the whole hike in a T-shirt!

So what’s the verdict? The addition of the trip down to Mud Lake (and more importantly the “up” part) turns a moderate hike into a really good workout – it came to about 9 miles and 2600 feet of gain. There is another lovely little mountain lake but no dramatic views or other excitement. And no unpleasant surprises.

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