GeezerHiker

June 11, 2013

Noises

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades, Weather — geezerwriter @ 8:00 pm
Hidden Creek

Hidden Creek

Last Thursday an even dozen of us geezers made the long drive down through Skagit County, despite the risk of being caught up in the traffic due to the the recent collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River, around to the east side of Mount Baker and all the way up to the top of Baker Lake to hike the East Bank Trail as far as the mouth of Noisy Creek. It is a wonderful hike through an old growth forest above the shore of Baker Lake, about 10 miles round trip with roughly 1000 feet of ups and downs along the way – not usually enough to justify a 140 mile round trip drive, but we are getting pretty tired of hiking on the coast and eager to get into the mountains. This area is less than 1000 feet above sea level so the winter snows, if there were any, are long gone.

(You can read more about the hike on my friend DJan’s blog D-Jan-ity.)

But there was plenty of snow on the high ridge above us, as evidenced by the roaring meltwaters in Hidden Creek, which we crossed about halfway along. That smokiness in the background is not fog or mist, since it was warm, dry day – it is all spray from the creek. We had to shout to be heard over the waters’ roar while standing on the bridge, and this isn’t even the one they call Noisy Creek!

A few months ago I blew part of my daughter’s inheritance on a new camera and I’ve been meaning to publish some of its pictures and describe its cool features, but for now I’ll just show a couple. The main reason I bought the new Sony RX-100 is that it has a larger light sensor than most point-and-shoot cameras, making for less “noisy” pictures. When one crams a whole lot of pixels into a tiny sensor, the electrons can “leak” from on pixel to another, giving a messy, smeared effect especially in low light situations. The larger sensor will allow me fewer excuses – on another day I will show off more of its abilities.

The picture above is cropped from a vertical, about 30% of the original. It is not a great picture but it shows pretty good color rendition in low light.

At our destination we enjoyed a splendid view of Mount Baker including as a special treat a substantial cloud of steam from the crater.

Baker from Noisy Camp

Baker from Noisy Camp

The crater is that notch between the two peaks (named for Generals Sherman and Grant). It is always giving off steam but it is often obscured by other cloudiness or blown away by strong winds. It is my understanding that the steam does not come directly out of the volcano, but results from the ever-present snow at that altitude melting and seeping down into cracks until it is boiled off by the hot magma that lies below the surface.

And that picture is not a great one, either, but it is an example of one of the new camera’s many fancy tricks – it automatically noticed that it was an extremely high contrast situation, from the hikers in the deep shade on the beach to the snow on Baker. In a single image either the hikers would be black silhouettes or the mountain would washed out to bone white. This camera, without being asked, took three quick pictures at different exposures and blended them into one. This is called High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing and has been available as a post-process after the images are uploaded to the computer but this gadget does it on the fly.

More Noises

Baker River GPS error

Baker River GPS error

Near the end of the hike, as we approached the trailhead, I glanced at my GPS and noticed that it was indicating that we were quite far from the track that it had it had recorded in the morning. I was pretty sure there weren’t two trails! And sure enough, when we got back on to the earlier track there was no second trail and no sharp turn. The picture on the right (you can click to enlarge it) shows a number of tracks from previous times we had hiked this trail all looking roughly the same and the new one, in bright red, following along with the others but then turning sharply to the right and bouncing around a bit before resuming a northeasterly course roughly parallel to the true one. It even shows us going well out into the river (I think we would have noticed that!) before getting its act together at the bridge.

Hoypus Hokum

Hoypus Hokum

Now I don’t watch the GPS all the time, but I had noticed in the morning that it was showing an accuracy of about 30 feet. However that spurious track is a couple of hundred feet from the true one. We were in a pretty deep valley but it was a clear day in a light forest and all the rest of the track looks pretty normal.

And this is not the first time I’ve seen this sort of thing. Last year (or was it two?) we were hiking at Hoypus Hill in Deception Pass State Park on another clear, dry day (water, in clouds or on trees, can absorb radio waves and interfere with GPS reception), in light forest cover but this time on the top of a hill with no mountains blocking the sky (another potential GPS vexer) and I got the track shown in red on the map to the left. It has roughly the same S-shape – it even flattens out for a while near the middle of the S – but veers way off from the true track. . And it eventually drifted  back “on track.”

Cub Creek Crud

Cub Creek Crud

And then there was the time on the Cub Creek hike on Stewart Mountain east of Bellingham – again a bright, clear day, near the top of the mountain with a hill on one side blocking some sky but not much. And this time we were walking on a level road so the tree cover was minimal and the true track was right there on the map on the GPS device. We were proceeding east-to-west when the track veered off, again keeping the same general shape – notice that there is a small, gentle inflection about halfway along that shows on both tracks. In this case the red track takes a sudden screeching turn to the left and zips back to the road.

What gives?

So how is this possible? The GPS knows nothing about its direction of travel (I usually have the compass feature turned off since it eats a lot of battery time) or the shape of the trails – it just receives signals from a number of satellites that allow it to triangulate its location. It is supposed to know where it is at any time, but that’s all. And if the signals are weak or otherwise inadequate the device will show that by raising the “accuracy” distance or just bailing out entirely. In these cases it appears that the device was still receiving signals that were good enough and consistent enough to allow it work through its algorithms and come up with what appeared to be a “good” answer. And they were good enough to get the overall shape of track correct.

The Explanation ? ? ?

I was musing about this with DJan at the end of the Baker Lake hike and I remembered that at the time of the Hoypus Hill hike someone (probably DJan herself) had mentioned that we were in a period of high sunspot and solar storm activity.  And she said that that was true again now! I know almost nothing about such things but I poked around a little on the Interwebs and confirmed high activity on Thursday and higher yet on the Hoypus Hill day; Cub Creek was middling, but definitely not low.

Again, I have no idea how solar storms could do this, but a burst of radio frequency noise could conceivably fit with the notion of a widespread but temporary disruption of radio signals – after all those satellites are way up where the solar wind could get at them.

But still this is deeply weird. The only lesson that one can surely take away from this is to be very careful about trusting a GPS device. They work very well most of the time but you should always be looking for the possibility of error.

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October 7, 2012

Ptarmigan Ridge and the Portal

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 1:23 pm

We had ten hikers for our trip to Ptarmigan Ridge this year. (You can see more about this and all of our hikes on DJan’s blog.) Some people wanted to extend the hike further than usual by going on to the “Portals” and others did not want to stay out so late, so we split up the cars and riders accordingly. Actually we all made it a bit further out than in the past, arriving at this nice little lunch spot under Coleman Pinnacle with a grand view of the rest of our route out onto Mount Baker. You can just see the “Portals” in the distance way over on the right edge of this picture.

Lunch time

Lunch time

OK, it’s time to show you a better picture of the “Portals” and get rid of those quotation marks. A quick dictionary check yields:

Portal: a doorway, gate, or other entrance, esp. a large and elaborate one.

There is actually only one portal here – a large gap in a dark lava rock ridge that is a waypoint on a once popular climbing route for Mount Baker. The left and right “door jambs” of this portal apparently acquired the names “East Portal” and “West Portal” over time, and the whole melange came to be called the “Portals”. My grammatical pickiness just can’t abide this sort of nonsense so I’m going to call it The Portal. I’ll give in and accept the conventional names for the its two sides (which I have to admit sound better than “East-” and “West Door Jamb”) but I just can’t stand that misbegotten plural.

Baker & the Portal

Baker & the Portal

The route to East Portal goes off the right side of that picture, curves around and re-emerges on the ridge line that passes behind Mike at the cuff of his left sleeve and proceeds along the edge of the snow up to a point directly below the “P” of “East Portal” and then hooks to the right. It looks like there is a lot of snow to cross but not so – 3 or 4 patches that were nearly level and not icy.

Right behind Mike’s left hand you can see a sharp change in the color of the rocks: slightly greenish medium gray rocks of the Chilliwack formation underneath darker reddish-black, and much more recent, lava rock. (The picture below shows where we crossed this dramatic unconformity about an hour later.) It is my understanding that this darker rock is a lava flow from Mount Baker and this is a graphic demonstration of the fact that Baker is just a big, beautiful carbuncle perched on the surface of the much more ancient “basement rocks” that comprise the North Cascades.

Where Baker begins

Where Baker begins

The rest of the pictures were taken after we reached East Portal. This shows Baker with West Portal on the right.

Baker from East Portal

Looking past West Portal to Baker from East Portal

Looking down into the Portal

Looking down into the Portal

Avalanche Gorge & Rainbow Ridge

Looking southeast across Avalanche Gorge to Rainbow Ridge

End of the trail

Admiring the views of Mount Blum and the Pickets

And finally, Steve showing off his mountain climb skills (and a measurable amount of sheer lunacy) on East Portal.

Showing off

Showing off

April 13, 2012

You can take the hiker out of the Northwest…

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, Travel — geezerwriter @ 9:43 pm
Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

On our trip to Southern California to visit Joe and Laura we have come across a great variety of weather to go with the great variety of everything else one finds here. Tuesday we drove south to Redondo Beach, where Wanda’s (much) elder brother was the editor of the Daily Breeze in the late forties after mustering out of the service. It was a beautiful day for a drive along the coast from Marina del Rey to Redondo and after lunch we were visited by a very friendly Black-crowned Night Heron. At first glance it appeared to be a tern but then I saw the long, delicate white plume that extends from the back of his head almost the while length of his body. That and the brilliant ruby eye cinched the identification.

The next day Joe and Laura were once again busy with work, so we drove out to the Angeles Crest mountains for a visit to the historic Mount Wilson Observatory. After some overnight rain the weather was fine in town but we entered the clouds as we drove to the observatory’s 5600′ elevation, and at first we could hardly read the few signs. The temperature had dropped to about 35°F (2°C) and I thought we wouldn’t be spending much time there. But after the obligatory trip to the restroom the clouds pulled back a bit and we could find our way over toward the observatory.

I should say “the observatories” since there is a large campus with a number of different types of observatories. The centerpiece is the 100-inch diameter Hooker reflecting telescope, but there is an older 60-inch reflector, a couple of towering solar telescopes including one with a 150-foot (not a typo) focal length and a CHARA array of six one-meter reflector telescopes linked together by large light pipes and some seriously sexy computing devices to form a instrument that can resolve objects that would require a mirror 340 METERS in diameter (which works out to about 1100 feet). The Hooker mirror (2.4 meters) is 13 inches thick and weighs tons so I cannot begin to imagine what a 340 meter chunk of glass would be like.

There are no pictures worth showing because of the weather and because all of the action there is intellectual and nothing is very photogenic.

Then last night at dinner Laura told me about her favorite hike in the area: Runyon Canyon. If you’ve ever seen a TV series shot in LA (e.g., Entourage) where people are shown hiking and jogging in the hills, there is a good chance you’ve seen Runyon Canyon. It is a public park in a notch in the Hollywood Hills just above Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue (of tar-pit fame). It climbs up to Mulholland Drive and affords panoramic views of the Los Angeles basin.

At least it does when the atmosphere is friendly. Today the forecast was for rain and we headed out into the sort of drizzle that is so familiar to hikers  (and everyone else) in the Northwest. We first popped into downtown LA’s fashion district to visit the Michael Levine fabric store – an enormous warehouse-like room jammed with any sort of cloth you can imagine. Wanda picked up a few yards for a future quilting project and we headed to Joe’s restored theater where he runs his business of sound editing and mixing for motion pictures (he was raised in Seattle, so his company is named “Puget Sound”) and Laura runs her calligraphy and event planning business. I dropped Wanda off so she could have some quiet time and I headed for Runyon Canyon.

Downtown LA

Downtown LA from Runyon Canyon

Santa Monica from Runyon Canyon

Santa Monica from Runyon Canyon

By now the rain had reduced to an intermittent misting so it looked like I had a good chance of a pleasant hike. I didn’t bring any of my hiking gear on the trip – no trekking poles, no pack, only some New Balance walking shoes – but the whole hike was only about 2 miles round trip with about 700′ of elevation gain. The terrain is mostly low brushy stuff (chaparral, maybe?) with occasional trees so you get almost continuous views of the city.

The first half-mile was quite steep, covering most of the 700′ of gain. The footing was pretty good – mostly coarse sandy earth derived from the dark granitic bedrock that showed itself frequently. I think it would be classed as diorite – basically like granite, but with the darker minerals predominating over the lighter quartz. It was the latter that formed the coarse sand, much like at the start of Hannegan Pass trail.

The hard part

The hard part

Diorite bedrock

Diorite bedrock

There were a couple of steep spots further on, including this rocky face coming down from the high point of the trail. By this time the mist had moistened the track pretty well and it was a bit slippery. It wouldn’t have been a huge problem if I’d had my poles, but even then I might have done some sitting and sliding. But I was wearing some fairly nice pants so I ended up doing a crab walk on hands and feet, facing up – I’m glad there was no one there to take any pictures.

Micro box canyon

Micro box canyon

When I got to the north end of the trail I was looking at a choice of going back down the old sort-of-paved road or down another ridge trail something like the one I’d just done. My decision was made for me when the wind suddenly began to roar up the canyon and the mist turned to a downpour – I had a light rain jacket on but everything not covered by it was drenched to the skin in about fifteen seconds. As I went squishing down the road and the brown runoff spread across it, I remembered thinking at the start of the hike that, given the rain, I was better off on the ridge than in the gully since a flash flood was more likely, and more dangerous, than a lightning storm – I remembered that just as a massive thunderclap echoed across the canyon, reminding me that I did not have to choose between those two potential disasters.

Flash Flood

Flash Flood

The road had been paved at one time, but is badly washed out in spots. When the runoff stream hit those potholes/washouts it would turn into a mini-waterfall at the top of a micro-box canyon. By the time I got back close to city streets the water had spread across the entire width of the road in places. And then it funneled down into a gutter and roared on past the opulent mansions lining the street. I took a short movie of the point where the runoff from the trail turns and runs down Vista Street – I don’t think I can include a video in this blog.
Tomorrow we’re expecting a return to the normal, boring old sunny warmth of Southern California for a trip to Alhambra to visit with Laura’s family, followed by another sardine session on Allegiant Air for the return to Bellingham. (Did you know that the seats on Allegiant don’t even recline any more?)

Additions & Corrections

Joe informed me that the tall buildings in the distance that I identified as downtown Santa Monica are actually in Century City, a neighborhood of tall office buildings that are home to many lawyers and agents who control the flow of money in and around the motion picture business.

I wasn’t able to find any detailed information about the bedrock mentioned – all the geology discussions I found in a quick search was understandably focused on earthquake faults and soil stability. So I will stick with my identification of the rock as diorite; follow this link to a picture that seems to confirm.

And it appears that I can add my video of the storm runoff, via the good offices of flickr.com:

September 22, 2010

The Gargett Brothers’ Gold Mine

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, Mining, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 6:25 pm
Packing up at Twin Lakes

Packing up at Twin Lakes

On Tuesday, my friend Earl and I took a much delayed hike to the old Gargett Mine on the side of Mount Larrabee. Earl is a Bellingham Lifer, with the exception of a mid-life parole in California, and has a strong interest in local history in general and mining in particular.

We left Bellingham in fog but soon saw some blue skies, although there were plenty of clouds all day, too. The road to Twin Lakes is in better condition than I’ve ever seen it – just about any car could make it to the lakes with a little care – and it was so nice to be in that beautiful spot without a jillion cars and smoky campfires!

The first thing we noticed was that every mountain around us had some fresh snow – I think we can safely say that summer is almost over and we should prepare ourselves for a premature end to the high country hiking season. The snow is above 6000′ of elevation at the moment, which will not interfere with most of our hikes, but it does put next week’s hike to Ptarmigan Ridge into some jeopardy.

The Skagit Range in clouds

The Skagit Range in clouds

Snow above HIgh Pass

Snow above HIgh Pass

As we hiked out toward Low Pass the clouds obscured the grand views of distant mountains but provided their own smoky splendor. A little further on they allowed us a haunting view of the new snow on Mount Larrabee just above High Pass. We blew on past High Pass toward the mine, bemoaning once again the pathetic supply of blueberries. This is a very lightly used trail (most folks who manage to drive to Twin Lakes just hike to Winchester Mountain, if they leave their cars at all) and should be awash in berries at this time of year, but we found only a few truly ripe ones and those were mostly small. There were many that were hardly bigger than a BB.

On the way down to the mine

On the way down to the mine

But we could enjoy the gorgeous landscape even without berries. As we hiked down from High Pass toward the mine, the stream that drains the cirque above High Pass was aroar from the recent rain and snow and beautiful to look at – the only concern was that we would have to cross it in a few minutes. Usually it is little more than a trickle but this time we would have to hunt around for a safe crossing.

The Forest Service maintains this trail as far as High Pass and has done some great work on it in the last couple of years. Beyond that point it has deteriorated significantly. It has been especially damaged by shortcuts, to the point where the moderate old mule trail has nearly disappeared in spots, supplanted by excessively steep cutoffs. Last year I went out and spent a few hours one day trying to locate and partially clear out the old trail, but it is still hard to find in places, with some smallish Christmas-size trees growing right out of the trail. I think I should try to go back out again this year with a bigger saw – anyone interested?

Earl at the mine

Earl at the mine

The adit

The adit

The mine entrance, or adit, is pretty hard to see from a distance but you can see one old rusted tub-like affair from High Pass. On closer inspection it is more than a tub, with pipes and gadgets and driveshafts for whatever purpose. There are a lot of other old pieces of iron and sheet metal lying around and it makes you wonder how they managed to get that stuff up here. You can see from the picture that the “tub” is a pretty big chunk of metal – what you can’t see is that the walls are a good half-inch thick.

Inside the mine

Inside the mine

Someone, or perhaps a storm, has modified the adit since the last time I was there. In the past you could walk right up to a wooden framework and stick your head inside, but now it is just a literal hole in the ground, and there is an active stream cutting a tiny ravine. It was too dark to see much, but the camera’s flash showed some old timber bracing standing in a foot or so of water and lots of debris under the water. Drops of water fell almost constantly from the ceiling and plopped into the pool – if you look closely you can see a small splash in the picture, near the center bottom.

You can also see a brilliant white spot on the ceiling near center top. We couldn’t get close enough to see it well, but my guess is that it belongs to a vein of pure white quartz, just the sort of thing that would have drawn prospectors to dig, since gold and other heavy metals often are found along such quartz seams.

Hiking back toward Winchester

Hiking back toward Winchester

We walked back to High Pass to have lunch, by which time a lot of the new snow had already melted on the trail up Larrabee. The hike back was as lovely as the way out, including a nicely framed view of Winchester Mountain – if you look very closely you might be able to see the flag flying at Mount Baker Club’s lookout cabin.

Just before reaching the trailhead, on the side of Winchester, I took a bunch of pictures of some bizarre looking boulders that I’ve noticed on earlier hikes. They are mostly brownish-gray with a sandy texture, but show a number of roughly lenticular inclusions of a smooth, almost silvery light gray rock that stands out prominently from the background. They look to me like they might be bits of marble. From the general look of the rock, I was guessing that they are from the Yellow Aster Complex that I have gone about at great length in earlier posts. And when I got home I looked at the state geology department’s online geologic map and found a little tiny speck of YAC right at the very summit of Winchester. From the location of these boulders, it is not too hard to believe that might have tumbled down from that summit.

Marble(?) in Yellow Aster Complex

Marble(?) in Yellow Aster Complex

Back at Twin Lakes we took the side trip over to Skagway Pass to look down at the only active gold mine in the area, the Lone Jack Mine. There was no sign of activity, and no big piles of quartz ore, so we guessed that they have completed their operations for the season, not a moment too soon from the looks of the new snow.

And the clouds that had been gradually rising all day, finally exposed a full view of Mount Larrabee and the Pleiades, giving me one of my best pictures of the day,

Larrabee and the Pleaides from Skagway Pass

Larrabee and the Pleaides from Skagway Pass

September 15, 2010

Keeping Cool

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 6:50 pm
This is a trail?

This is a trail?

Today I hiked the old Keep Cool Trail for the first time. I just had to get out and take advantage of what promised to be the last fine day for awhile. Bellingham was submerged in fog as I started out Mount Baker Highway but it cleared before I got to Deming, revealing perfectly clear skies. I got to the trailhead at 3000′ on Twin Lakes Road just after 9:00 and headed out.

The Keep Cool Trail has been disowned by the Forest Service for about 10 years and the lack of maintenance was clear within a few steps of the trailhead, as the brush quickly closed in. The first half mile or so follows a long-abandoned logging road so it isn’t very steep but is heavily overgrown. The rains of the past few days and the morning’s foggy, foggy dew meant that I was quickly drenched from head to toe, despite the clear skies and fresh breeze. In some places the old roadbed is entirely obliterated, so the footing is difficult even on this “easier” part of the trail, especially since it is often hard to see the ground through the brush.

Shuksan peek-a-view

Shuksan peek-a-view

At about 3500 feet elevation, the character of the trail changes abruptly when, after switch-backing up the old road, the trail turns and head straight up the mountain. Reminiscent of Boulder Ridge, it is very steep, rutted and rooted, gaining the next 500′ in less than half the distance of the first 500′. There are also some pretty substantial deadfall situations to get past. The good news is that, for such a wooded hike, there are some nice little peek-a-views of Baker, Shuksan and even Larrabee.

At 4000′ the trail plateaus for a short while, giving a welcome respite from the climb. It is here that I lost track of the trail on my only other visit several years ago. I had come up to go snowshoeing and Twin Lakes Road happened to be passable to this trailhead. I was able to follow the trail this far through the snow and mush along on the level, but when it got steeper I had no idea where I was going and had to turn around. And this time was similar – just as the trail started to steepen again, there was a big fallen tree, too high to go over and too low to go under, right before the trail made a jog to the left. I chose to go to the right to get around the tree and it took a bit of hunting to find the trail again.

Quartz dike in Yellow Aster Gneiss

Quartz dike in Yellow Aster Gneiss

The next section was as steep as the earlier one, often following a lovely stream. In fact “following” is too weak a word – it was hard to tell whether it was more correct to say that there was water on the trail or thatI was hiking in a creek.

After about 2.5 miles, at 4700′, the trail emerges into an open meadows with great views to the south and east. It had taken me almost 2.5 hours to get here, so I stopped for a snack and a rest. The remainder of the trail alternates between level and damp (even boggy at times) and very steep, but it simply gorgeous. The flowers were everywhere and even the rock outcroppings were interesting, especially a large, snow-white quartz dike over a foot wide right across the trail.

The Destination

The Destination

Old Adventures

As I looked up at the mountains ahead I began to remember a couple of adventures I’d had a number of years ago in this area, both centered an unnamed peak which now appeared above me. It is southwest of Yellow Aster Butte, on the opposite side of the chains of little lakes (often called “tarns”, mistakenly, I believe) that feed the stream that I had been “following”. This peak would stand in the way if you wanted to travel from the Yellow Aster area over to Welcome Pass and the rest of High Divide. So Earl and I accompanied his friend Lee in an attempt to find a way. We came up the new Yellow Aster trail, via Gold Run Pass, and had someone take the car to meet us at the Welcome Pass trailhead, so there was no turning back.

Now, when faced with any large obstacle to travel, there are three obvious possibilities: go around it to the left, go over the top, or go around to the right. It turns out, in retrospect, that two of these are reasonable – we chose the third.

Going over the top looks extremely forbidding, and going left is the long way around and looks overgrown. So we went right, directly into a nightmare. We started out going down a slope that was so steep that I was pretty sure I couldn’t get back up. We scrambled on rocks and scree, and sometimes a grip on a bit of heather was all that was between me and … I don’t want to think about it. This was very early in my hiking career, before I lost 35 pounds (leaving the ranks of the “obese” and joining those who are merely “overweight”). It was pretty awful, but we survived, even though it meant hiking down the obscenely steep Welcome Pass late in the waning day, getting to the trailhead in full darkness.

A couple of years later I took my first overnight hike in the North Cascades and chose to camp in the Yellow Aster lakes area. It was my plan to try going around the peak to the left, but in a more controlled way, avoiding any “point of no return” situations. I’ll spare the details, but it turned out that I found a trail, albeit a scratchy and precarious one, right over the top of the peak, and a longer, safer way around the left side.

Back on the Trail

Close-up of Bell Pass Melange

Bell Pass Melange

I hadn’t a clear destination in mind for this hike, but as I looked up at the unnamed peak, I decided to try to make it up there. After one more steep section, at 5200′ the trail comes to the first of the chain of small lakes and becomes a gentle ramble through rocks of the Yellow Aster Complex with lots of the quartz seams that drew so many prospectors here in search of gold and lead. The trail up to the summit was even steeper than I remembered (six years of aging may have had something to do with that) but the reward was a spectacular 360 degree mountain panorama. Just before reaching the top, there is a dramatic outcropping of the Bell Pass Melange, and as I scrambled around it the steep slope to my left, covered with blueberry plants in their brilliant red fall plumage, made a frame for Mount Baker and gave me one of my favorite pictures in a long time.

Baker and blueberries

Baker and blueberries

There was one ominous sight from the summit: I could see what looked a lot like fresh snow on Mount Redoubt in the distance. This could be a very short hiking season, indeed.

New snow on Mount Redoubt

New snow on Mount Redoubt?

It had taken me 4 hours to climb these 4 miles and the return trip was not going to be much easier so I realized that I was going to be home later than expected. Luckily the peak has direct sightline to the cell tower at the Mount Baker Ski Area and I was able call home – it kind of weird to be on top of a mountain making a phone call.

The way down from the peak was considerably more challenging than I remembered. Part way down I even considered tossing my pack down, since it was holding me out further from the rock face than was comfortable; I also could have turned around and backed down, but that technique has it’s own issues. Eventually I found a nice safe place to plant a foot and lowered myself uneventfully. And I remembered later that I had never gone down this trail with a pack before – on my camping trip I just took a small fanny pack on this side trip.

The rest of the trip down was pleasant, although it did take me 3 hours. In summary, this hike would be a good choice on a summer weekend – get a good workout and avoid the crowds. But don’t even think of doing it in the rain.

Epilogue

I got back just in time to stop in and check out the new restaurant east of Glacier called “Chair 9”. Their sign just says “bar and pizza” but they have a fairly broad menu, including salads and buffalo steaks and burgers. The service was friendly and prompt and the pizza was quite tasty, even if the crust was a bit soft for my taste.

August 8, 2010

Finding Faults

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, Mining, North Cascades — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 8:02 pm

Yellow Aster Butte is arguably the most geologically interesting hike in the Mount Baker area (and that is saying something!). In the course of less than four miles, you walk on remnants of at least three different tectonic plates, or terranes. Some may have broken off from other continents, others might be oceanic island arcs (like Hawaii), but wherever they came from, continental drift has piled them up on the western edge of North America long ago. Now they are all scrunched together, eroded over time, and form the the western portion of the North Cascades.

It is possible that similar formations underlie the Cascades further south, but there the remains of the huge chain of volcanos that built the Cascade Range are what you see. Only up here in the north have the Cascade lavas eroded away almost entirely (the Black Buttes and Table Mountain are exceptions) to expose these “basement rocks”.

I have given a lot of attention over the last ten years to trying to find the actual transition lines between these plates. The heavy vegetation and snow cover, and the extreme complexity of the formations themselves, generally make it pretty difficult for an amateur to find those faults, but this trail has a couple that just shout at you. Well, they whisper really loudly, at least.

The hike starts in the Swamp Creek valley on rocks of the Easton terrane, crosses the Chilliwack River terrane as you go up through the woods and ends on the Bell Pass Melange and the Yellow Aster Complex. As usual, I ran on and on about the geology, but I decided to pluck that stuff out and put it in a little appendix so I could get right to the pictures.

Fault #1

Serpentine hills (and 2 hikers)

Serpentine hills (and 2 hikers)

The first fault (Bpm - Yac)

The first fault (Bpm - Yac)

As you walk along on the level part of the Yellow Aster trail after splitting off from the Tomyhoi Lake trail, the rocks gradually change from the Chilliwack to the Yellow Aster Complex. The change is gradual because you are walking very close to the fault-line; the Chilliwack is below and the Yellow Aster Complex above the trail, so the rocks you see are pretty jumbled up. At the end of this mostly level stretch of trail, about 2.5 mile into the hike, you come to a series of strange, bare, brown hills followed by a sharp drop into a valley, usually filled with snow. This is the first of two striking fault zones. The brown hills are solid serpentine, which usually shows up near faults. It is also usually green and shiny, almost like jade, but here it is darker, almost black, and is heavily weathered – iron produces the rusty brown color.

It is very common to find stream valleys following fault lines, since the movement along a fault tends to grind up the rocks, making openings for water and roots to get in and do their erosional magic.

Looking up toward the butte, you can also see some brownish serpentine on the face of the notch, just above the center of the photo on the left. This fault separates the Yellow Aster Complex, on the right, from the Bell Pass Melange, but the difference is not at all obvious from a distance.

Approaching the fault

Approaching the fault

Fault #2

But the really cool, textbook example of a fault exposure comes almost another mile up the trail. The first picture shows Con, Cindy and DJan approaching the fault, which runs diagonally across the scene just above the middle. Notice that on the lower right we are hiking along an even slope through a lot of wildflowers and there are few exposed rock outcrops – and then suddenly it is all bare, craggy rock with only sparse vegetation. The snow puddle at the upper right is lying right on top of the fault, and draining along it right through the big shiny gray patch (which may be more serpentine) near the center of the picture.

On the fault (Yac - Bpm)

On the fault (Yac - Bpm)

Wherever I’ve found the Bell Pass Melange, I’ve noticed that the terrain is comparatively smooth, with few outcrops, and the samples I’ve picked up are always covered with moss and lichens and such. Perhaps there are some really tasty minerals in there, or maybe it’s because of all the nooks and crevices between the various components of the melange, but this stuff seems to weather and erode away easily. On the other hand, the Yac is very old and much harder and more compact.

Looking back down the fault

Looking back down the fault

When we got up on top of that snow puddle the contrast was even more striking – we were picking our way through sharp, bare rocks and a few feet away was a gentle mountain meadow leading up to the top of the butte. It is not unusual for the nature of the underlying rock to affect the vegetation that grows on it, but this is a particularly good example. In the last picture you can see that the snow near the center is lying right on the fault, and that the transition is only a few feet wide.

Appendix A

As promised (threatened?) here is some more on the geology.

The hike starts in the Swamp Creek valley on rocks of the Easton terrane, called the Darrington Phyllite. Goat Mountain, across the creek, is one big chunk of phyllite, and we’ve seen it often on other trails (Anderson Mountain…), but we don’t see much along this trail since it is covered by glacial deposits and a lot of vegetation. Most of the gold mined in the Mount Baker area was found in quartz seams in this formation.

As the trail rises through the woods it crosses onto the Chilliwack River terrane, a broad mixture of various volcanic, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks that is very widespread in the area (Herman Saddle, Canyon Ridge, Sauk Mountain…) but the forest hides the transition. The first really noticeable rocks don’t appear until you are on the section of the trail that contours around to the north and west from the Gold Run Pass / Tomyhoi Lake trail toward Yellow Aster Butte and Mount Tomyhoi, and, at first, these are the Chilliwack rocks.

Now the Easton and the Chilliwack terranes are very nice, I’m sure, and very important geologically, but it is the third terrane that has always interested me most. It is called the Bell Pass Melange, named for a seldom-visited pass at the head of Bell Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of the Nooksack. That pass is a saddle in the ridge that joins Mount Baker to the Twin Sisters and separates the South Fork from the Middle Fork. (That really has nothing to do with today’s story, but I put it in to emphasize that these various terranes are all jumbled up and crop out all over the place. It is a very, very complex system.) The geologists call it a “melange” (French for “mixture”) probably hoping that it will sound sophisticated and most people won’t notice that they really don’t completely understand what’s going on here.

Ultramafic Rocks

There are several very different types of rocks within the melange, and each of them is strange and extraordinary. The most prominent local exposure of this terrane is the Twin Sisters Range, which is one great big chunk of ultramafic rock called dunite which is composed entirely of one mineral, olivine (which is unusual in itself), and began it existence as part of the earth’s deep mantle, rather than the thin, crispy crust we live on. Somehow it got attached to a piece of crust that got turned upside down in some violent tectonic interaction.

Yellow Aster Complex

Yellow Aster Complex

Yellow Aster Complex

Another is the Yellow Aster Complex (note the use of another general purpose noun to cover a lack of full understanding). I went prospecting for this one a few weeks ago on my trip to the Baker Lake region. It is very old and is sometimes called the Yellow Aster Gneiss, since it is rather coarse grained and has undergone metamorphism, but it is cut with other things, and is truly a complex within the melange. I’ll call it “Yac”.

It was named for this general area, probably for the area west of the butte where the chain of small lakes is and where a good deal of prospecting and perhaps mining went on at one time. That area is entirely underlain by the Yac; but the part of Yellow Aster Butte that the trail leads to is actually built of the third rock species.

Bell Pass Melange

Bell Pass Melange

Bell Pass Melange

My favorite is also called, confusingly, the Bell Pass Melange (Bpm). So it is a melange within the melange. (From now on I will use the term “melange” and  “Bpm” to refer to this particular rock, rather than to the whole terrane. Why do people do things like that?) It is a truly gnarly and mixed up mess. It is dark gray to black overall, but with bright white quartz intrusions, folded and layered parts that almost look like petrified wood, cracks, crevices and what-all. When you hike that last steep slope up to the “top” of Yellow Aster Butte, this is the stuff you are stepping on.

As I mentioned above, it seems to weather rather evenly, so it tends to hide from view under vegetation, but substantial outcrops can also be found in the Middle Fork area (near Elbow Lake and, strangely enough, near Bell Pass) and near the west end of Canyon Ridge.

These pictures are of samples I gather near Schrieber’s Meadow (Yac) and the Middle Fork (Bpm). The last one is of a small piece, also from the Middle Fork, that I sliced and partially polished in my lapidary class last year. The teacher wouldn’t let me cut it in the big slabbing saw because it looked like it would shatter and jam up the works. You can see many small cracks and rusty spots and near the upper left you can see some crystals forming a small geode. It is really strange stuff.

Bpm (sliced)

Bpm (sliced)

July 24, 2010

Boulder Ridge in the rain

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 6:37 pm

The week before last I spent two days hiking on the east side of Mount Baker with the goal of finding some places where we could hike. The information on the USFS website just didn’t seem very credible so I went to see for myself. In particular they were claiming that there was snow right at Schreiber’s Meadow, the main trailhead in the area, which is at about 3500′ above sea level, while we had been encountering snow only above 4700′ for a couple of weeks.

I left early on Monday, July 12, and planned to go to the Meadow and scout around there, and then do some or all of the Forest Divide, Boulder Ridge, Rainbow Ridge and Park Butte trails over the next two days, based at a camp at the Boulder Creek FS campground. On the previous Friday, the day after a beautiful hike up Goat Mountain in warm, almost too warm, sunny weather, and with the same sort of weather forecast ahead indefinitely, I had made my campground reservation online. About an hour later, the Weather Service began to modify the forecast, and continued doing so throughout the weekend. By Monday it was gloom and drizzle everywhere, but I had already paid for my campsite (and I’m really cheap) so there I was at Schrieber’s Meadow in the rain, with not a single other vehicle parked at the most popular trailhead in the North Cascades.

[Orthographer’s note – I just noticed that I have already spelled the name of that meadow two different ways. It’s a struggle. The name is pronounced like the German word “Schreiber” which means “writer” or “scribe” and is pronounced with an “aye” (as in “Aye, matey!”) but is spelled with an “ie” which has no meaning in German, but would be pronounced as an “ee” (as in “Eek, a snake!”). Usually my rudimentary knowledge of German has helped me in life, but it makes it awfully hard to write “ie” when my mind is saying “aye”.]

The Yellow Aster Complex

Years ago I read in my favorite geology book, “Geology of the North Cascades” by Rowland Tabor and Ralph Taugerud and published by the Mountaineers, of a short off-trail junket to the base of a cliff below Survey Point where there is a rockfall of a complex and very ancient type of local rock called the Yellow Aster Complex, after the place where it was first cataloged near the small lakes at the base of Yellow Aster Butte. Some crystals in the rocks can be dated back over a billion years, into the Pre-Cambrian Era. Igneous rocks were formed then, eroded down into sands and muds, compacted into sedimentary sandstones and shales, then reheated and metamorphosed, perhaps more than once, into something like a gneiss or schist. And over the millennia, it was also cracked and broken, with the cracks being filled in with other sorts of molten rocks. Some books I’ve seen call it a “gneiss” (a coarse-grained metamorphic rock usually derived from granite) but others are non-committal and just call it a “complex” (the geologist’s equivalent of a punt).

The Yellow Aster Complex pops up in a number of places in the area, including the two mentioned above, some spots along the Middle Fork of the Nooksack and near Canyon Creek Road below Church Mountain. But it is often in close proximity with another ancient and even more complex looking mess of a rock called the Bell Pass Melange (another taxonomic punt), so I wanted to get to a spot where I could have it on some authority that the rocks I would find were examples of YAC and not BRM. (We will have the opportunity to see both types in the next week or so on the Yellow Aster Butte trail, if they aren’t all still buried in snow.)

Snow at Schrieber's

Snow at Schrieber's

To get to the rockfall, you go about 2/3 of a mile along the Park Butte trail, then head cross-country toward the cliff and find a ford across Rocky Creek. Almost as soon as I left the trail I was amazed to find patches of snow, corroborating the info on the USFS website! It turns out that there is a lot more snow over there than up along the North Fork of the Nooksack. That makes some sense, since that area is on the leeward slope of Mount Baker for storms that came from the west, and snow does tend to build up on the lee side of a mountain, as it does on the lee side of a fence or a house. The prevailing winds around here in the winter are from the SW, so the Mount Baker Ski Area, which is NE of Baker, normally gets huge amounts of snow despite its modest altitude of 3500′ to 5000′. (I’ve read that more snow falls there than on the top of Baker at 10,800′.) I just saw that the DOT is not even willing to estimate when the road through the ski area to Artist Point will be opened; after almost three weeks of plowing, they are just past halfway up the road.

So that was the major upshot of my trip: there is no point in looking to either Artist Point or the Baker Lake area for trekking opportunities in the next few weeks unless we want to hike with ice axes and crampons. I did manage to do parts of all the hikes I mentioned (except Forest Divide) and I ran into significant snow at 4000 to 4200 feet on all of them.

Boulder Ridge

I will spare you some of the gruesome details, but between the drizzle and nearly falling into rocky Creek (twice), I was wet all over and through for the next two days. Actually it just seemed that way, since down at my campsite at Boulder Creek it only rained a little and just at night.

The only hike where I went a respectable distance was on Boulder Ridge, mainly because its trailhead is at a lower elevation of about 2700′. I wanted to do a good job of checking this one out since it is on our schedule for the first week in September. Pat and Ron hiked it last year and reported that it was a great, if somewhat difficult, hike. Ron says it was one of the most beautiful places he’s ever been, which is saying something around here.

We’ll have to take Ron’s word for the beauty, though, since I couldn’t see anything most of the time. The trees were nice, but how beautiful can a tree be? But on the road and at the trailhead, there were big openings in the trees, which I could imagine being filled with some great views of the mountains east of Baker Lake (Blum, Hagen, Bacon, et al.), and I read somewhere online that the trailhead is one of the most beautiful in the area.

Mudhole #1

Mudhole #1

The trail heads immediately into the woods and is quite gentle for the first two miles, rising only about 500′. There were a lot of muddy spots, and I found myself wishing that the trail would get steeper and allow the water to run off. And it did get steeper. About the time I was regretting what I’d wished for it leveled out again and presented some truly epic mudholes that dwarfed the earlier ones, and then came out into a lovely open meadow – I could almost see Maria and the Lonely Goatherd gamboling through.

The Meadow

The Meadow

But it was, in fact, a bog. There was water running everywhere just below the level of the grasses. It turned out to be possible to pick my way across without immersing my boots, but I had to choose carefully.

And just past the bog the character of the trail changed dramatically – a quick right turn sent me straight up the side of the ridge without benefit of switchbacks. It is as steep as anything I’ve ever encountered that is still called a trail – it comes close to being a scramble. There are plenty of trees and other flora to grab for support, so it wasn’t at all scary, except for one big rounded outcrop of old Chilliwack River volcanic rock. It was glistening wet from the drizzle and exposed to a dramatic drop-off to Boulder Creek a long way below, but turned out not to be slippery and to have many small pits and cracks where a boot could get a good purchase. Combined with the wetness, both the very light drizzle in the air and the wet foliage alongside the narrow “trail”, it was a pretty miserable slog, and I was one soggy and dirty dude.

Chilliwack volcanics

Chilliwack volcanics

The Bog (same as The Meadow)

The Bog (same as The Meadow)

But it really didn’t go on for that long. It was only about a half a mile before slope eased up and the trail starts to come out of the trees onto a bit of a ridge. The geology underfoot also changed quite abruptly to modern Mount Baker lava rock, and the mist pulled back just enough to get some foggy glimpses of the head of the valley. I’m pretty sure that the blank whiteness of cloud ahead above the valley was hiding a truly spectacular view of Mount Baker. (After I got home I checked on my computerized topographic maps that it was only 3 miles to the summit. It would be basically the same view that DJan took from Baker Lake Road on our Baker River hike,  but 4 miles closer).

Looking toward Baker?

Looking toward Baker?

From what I read in various climbers’ reports (this is one of the less popular climbing routes to Mount Baker, but even here I ran into two pairs of climbers who, thankfully, had been on the summit the day before when it was sunny) that there is about another mile of trail beyond the point where I ran into deep snow, for a total of almost 4 miles. At that point there is a cliff that requires some technical work to get up onto the ridge for the Baker ascent.

When I got back to the car at almost 8PM I was wet and as dirty as I’ve ever been on a hike, but I still think it would be worth our while to do it. By September it should be pretty well dried out, and it was the wetness that was the worst part of the hike. The steep section is as tough as anything we regularly do (think about the Oyster Dome trail) but it is only a minor part. And there should be a great scenic payoff if we can hit a nice day, which in early September is a pretty good bet.

July 12, 2010

Heliotrope Ridge

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 1:35 pm

On Sunday, July 18, I drove out to Douglas Fir Forest Service campground near Glacier, set up my camp at 2:00 in the afternoon and headed right out to hike. My plan to explore the Skyline Divide trail for snow conditions was thwarted when I turned onto Dead Horse Creek Road (FS #37) and was greeted by an orange sign announcing the closure of the road at mile 7.1, a good 5 miles short of the trailhead. So I switched to Plan B and headed on up Glacier Creek Road (FS #39) to Heliotrope Ridge, which I had been planning to do the next morning. I would then have all evening to decide where, if anywhere, to go the next day.

Uphill from the outhouse

Uphill from the outhouse

The road is in good shape, but I went slowly, figuring that I would be going against any traffic on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, on the way to one of the most popular day hikes in the area and the start of the most popular climbing route to Mount Baker. I didn’t meet many cars on the road, but well before I could see the parking lot, there were parked cars packed along the side of the road. The first place I found to park was at the upper end of the parking area, right next to the outhouse, and the chain of parked cars continued on up the hill and out of sight around the next curve.

New bridge over Grouse Creek

New bridge over Grouse Creek

It was hard to believe that there was room for people from all those cars to fit on the trail, and even before crossing the brand new bridge across Grouse Creek (remember the flattened log with a steel cable handrail?) I began to meet people, both climbers with great huge packs and day hikers in tennies and their dogs. I decided to count them: in a little over an hour, I met 123 critturs of the human and canine persuasions, for a total of 264 feet/paws tromping on the trail. [Assuming that all individuals had the usual number of legs, how many were people and how many were dogs? Show your work.] Most hikers were coming down, but early in the hike I was passed by a couple of teenaged boys with skimpy packs and a black dog.

The trail is in great shape, despite the usual downed tree or two, and there was no snow at all until almost 5000′ elevation – a bit surprising since the trail is sheltered from the sun on the north side of the ridge. On the other hand, this is the windward side of Baker, which normally gets less snow. Just last week on the opposite side of the mountain on Boulder Ridge there was substantial snow cover at 4000′.

And the creek crossings are good, too. The Kulshan Creek ford, the first one that looks scary (but never stops us), has a lot of water, but many well-placed stepping stones. The big Heliotrope Creek crossing, the only one that has turned us back in recent years, has a big, sturdy snow bridge just above the trail. But I had found a nice spot to cross before I saw the trail “trodden black” across the snow bridge.

First look at Baker

First look at Baker

As I reached Heliotrope Creek, I met a family group of 4 who had just passed me, but had turned around after deciding not to cross the creek. The father (I presume) asked me to watch out for the two boys with the black dog, as they had become separated. (Well separated, indeed, as the boys had passed me an hour earlier.) They were guessing that the boys had turned off on the climbing route, about a quarter mile back, and were going to go back and try that route. None of us were expecting me to see them, since there wasn’t much trail left in the direction I was going, and they had passed me a long time ago.

Up the Coleman Glacier to Baker

Up the Coleman Glacier to Baker

I got over to the the moraine overlooking Coleman Glacier and headed up toward Baker. We have been doing this hike in the late fall in recent years and have only made it up to the point where the tree-covered moraine runs into a ridge of solid volcanic rock that (I believe) is called the Hogback. On this day I got quite a bit further up, since it was essentially free of snow.

I was looking up at the high point of the rocky ridge that I had chosen as my destination when I saw the black dog, and then the two boys. Oops. I hoped that they were not going any further and that I could catch up to them, but I was right at the base of a steep rocky hill which would slow me down. And then I saw the older boy seeming to move further on. So I waved and just bellowed as loud as I could, and managed to get the younger’s attention. They came back down to meet me and I filled them in on the situation, told them to go back to the climbing route junction and made them promise that at least one of them would stay there until they found their family. Good deed for today? – check!

Threatening clouds?

Threatening clouds?

The views were absolutely splendid, better than usual because of the time of day. It was after 5:00PM, and shadows were beginning to deepen on the glaciers but the sun was still bright. To the south and west some puffy cumulus clouds were trying to grow into thunderheads and scare every one off the mountain, but they weren’t very convincing. Besides, almost everyone was already gone.

My dinner spot on the Hogback

My dinner spot on the Hogback

I spent about a half hour having dinner there on the Hogback and taking many, many pictures. The trip down was uneventful and not nearly as busy – I only saw 5 more people.

So the Senior Trailblazers have a hike for this Thursday, after all. The lovely weather is supposed to continue indefinitely and I look forward to a fine outing, perhaps even as great as last week’s trip to the top of Church Mountain. But that’s asking a lot.

Baker over the Hogback

Baker over the Hogback


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.)

Baker

Baker

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.

Shuksan

Shuksan

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.

June 7, 2010

Springtime in the Cascades

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 8:51 pm

When we set up the June hiking schedule back in February, the snowfall in the mountains had been pretty light and we chose to schedule some high country hikes earlier than usual. Last Thursday that planning ran into reality on our hike to Goat Mountain. We had been warned of snow at 4000 feet (about 3 miles along the trail) by the Forest Service, but that “intel” was almost three weeks old. It was sunny and pleasant and we were hopeful.

Spring in the Cascades

Karen had brought a clipping from a hiking book that described a short trail that supposedly spurred off the main Goat Mountain trail for a about a half a mile to the site of an old “lookout cabin”. This had come up last summer on our last trip to Goat, and I was convinced that is was complete nonsense. I had hiked this trail many times and many features of this book’s description, including that spur trail, had made no sense at all to me, not the least being that it would be a pretty silly place for a lookout – on the side of a mountain, well below tree line. What were they looking out for? Squirrels?

But we followed the book’s directions and watched carefully after passing the boundary sign for the Mount Baker Wilderness. I had been pretty vocal about my disdain for the whole concept, to say the least, and so was more than a little surprised, and chagrined, to find signs of a trail right where it was supposed to be! We skipped it for the time being, but pencilled it in for exploration on another day.

When the bough breaks...

We continued on and got all the way to the 4000 foot level without even seeing any snow, on or off the trail. But all of a sudden at about 4200 feet the trail disappeared beneath mounds of the white stuff. We kept on for awhile, but it was pretty rough going, and after post-holing into a few voids and a snow bridge I lost most of my enthusiasm for reaching those spectacular views of Mount Shuksan that appear at our usual stopping point. As it was already noon, we found a large bare spot among some trees and settled down for lunch. Cindy managed to find a couple of trunks that were nearly horizontal and formed a sort of sling or hammock, and did some serious basking.

While we didn’t make it to the alpine terrain, we did enjoy some nice views of Mounts Herman, Sefrit and Shuksan peeking through clouds. And the tip of Grant Peak on Mount Baker just peeped over the top of Mount Herman.

Baker peeking over Mt Herman

Since our trip had been cut short, we decided to explore the mysterious lookout trail on the way down. We schussed and hiked back down to the 3700 foot level and set off on the abandoned trail. It was easy going right at the beginning but we soon ran into some bushes that needed whacking, and it turned out to be steeper than I’d expected. Before we’d gone the advertised half mile we started to run into the snow again and the trail started to disappear. We did indeed find a level spot that could have been a cabin site; in fact we found two of them. There was even a bit of a view between the trees, but I still don’t quite believe the “lookout” part of the story. Maybe a prospector’s cabin? The bedrock that Goat Mountain is made of, the Darrington Phyllite, has hosted most of the gold mining activity in the Mount Baker region, although I don’t know that were mines on Goat, itself.

I have to put in one more picture, this of a trillium blossom next to the trail on the way down. It is a graphic illustration of the compression of the seasons in the mountains that this picture was taken less than 15 minutes after the “Spring in the Cascades” photo above.

Trillium

P.S. For some really nice pictures from this hike, see DJan’s Blog.

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