March 30, 2010

South Stewart Lollipop

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 8:24 am

A couple of months ago I wrote about the trails and roads on the south end of Stewart Mountain, east of Lake Whatcom (See Cub Creek). In the meantime we had a Trailblazers planning meeting where we talked about taking on a trail clearing or maintenance project of some kind, and I thought of the one I mentioned at the end of that Cub Creek posting:

Another improvement would be to find a route from this “new” summit back to other summit and back to the fork in the road, giving the trail a “lollipop” form, rather than just out-and-back, and cutting out even more of the road.

Before getting any other suckers volunteers involved, I wanted to go up and see what needs to be done. And given the gentleness of our hike to Goose Rock on Thursday and the forecast of a good weather window on Saturday, I decided to head up there and do some clearing and maybe some exploring.

Existing Roads

At the lower elevations there are some actual hiking trails, but near the top there are only roads, whether newly maintained, decommissioned, abandoned or completely overgrown. The inset map shows shows all the roads we have hiked on in the last few years with the actively maintained roads are shown in dark blue. Last month we came into this map from the upper left and made the big counter-clockwise swing around to the eastern and highest summit, which I’ve marked with an “E”. (You can click on the map to enlarge it.). From there we could see over to the place marked “X”, where a new road (too new for this map) disappeared into the woods.

A year or so earlier we had taken the left-hand fork and slogged mightily through deep snow and thick brush along the long-ago-decommissioned road represented by the red line that trends roughly west to east to a small pass (marked “P”) and on around to the western summit, marked “W”.

The goal was to find a reasonable path from P to E, making it possible to get to the great views at point E without spending so much time on the roads.

It looks tempting to just head cross country, since there isn’t a lot of elevation change, but last month we could see that the valley between the two summits is not only covered with logging debris (or “slash”) but also is densely filled with small evergreens, making the traverse both dangerous and difficult.

But f you look closely at the map you can see a faint dotted line running from point P to point X and on up to the north. These dotted lines usually represent old roads, often very old ones, probably deeply overgrown. So there may be lots of brush and even some pretty good-sized trees in the road bed, but if you can find it and follow it, at least it won’t lead you over a cliff.

By comparing this old USGS map with the much newer aerial photography in Google Maps and Google Earth, it looked like the portion north of the X has been rebuilt for the recent logging operations and the segment just south of the X runs along the edge of the clearcut. In addition, Google showed that a new road has been built from near the X over to the east summit. So if we could just get from P to X, I was sure we could continue on to E and complete the loop.

So I packed up my trusty little pruning saw, a good pruning shears and a small bow saw and set off up the mountain. I planned to start hacking at the brush on the decommissioned road (the red line) and if I made it as far as the pass I would poke around and try to find traces of the lower end of the “dotted-line”. It would probably be easier to find the upper end of it, but that is a very long walk.

When I got to the red line I could see that others had been there before me – quite a lot of clearing had been done, perhaps last fall, maybe even this spring. There were still a lot small shoots and saplings, so I worked at it for awhile; but then I realized that it was getting easier as I went along. Then I noticed what looked like traces of a wheeled vehicle, a narrow dual track in places – my guess is that ATV riders have been working on the trail.

The Pass

So I progressed more quickly than I expected, and got to the pass around noon. I expected to have to clamber over a bunch of medium sized trees that lay across the road there, but apparently the ATV guys had brought up a chain saw and cut a pathway. I sat down one of the logs to have some lunch and assess whether I had the energy for some serious bushwhacking along the old road.

There was never any serious doubt about that, however. I decided to leave my pack, take my GPS (which had about a dozen waypoints taken from the map) and pruning tools and just go a little way into woods in search of the old road. Leaving my pack turned out to be a small mistake (as always) mainly because I didn’t have my camera with me. I ranged along the (newer) road looking for anything that looked like it might have once been an intersection, but there was a drop-off everywhere except right where the logs were piled up. So I climbed over the logs and, sure enough, on the other side the ground was rather level(ish) in a roughly northeasterly direction. It was not at all easy to follow, though, and was leading a bit downhill and to the north, while the waypoints were telling me to more uphill and NE. I probably paid too much attention to the GPS and after a short while I looked down and saw a flat spot that looked very road-like. I dropped back down and followed it until it ran smack into a tree that was almost two feet in diameter – not the sort of thing you expect to find in a road. Maybe this was where the road switched back to the southeast to climb along the flank of the hill?

So I zigged back and kept on toward the southeast. It wasn’t particularly difficult traveling, since it was a pretty open, mature forest, with the occasional giant stump, but nowhere was there anything flat and wide enough to have been a graded roadbed. I was starting to get a little nervous and thinking it might be good to turn back. It’s not that I had gone terribly far, and the GPS batteries were strong, but I was alone and well off anyone’s beaten path.

But just as I was getting to the point where my GPS track zagged back to the northeast, I came up on a stream. (Streams are great when bushwhacking, since they are easy to follow and pretty much stay put.) And this one was coming down very near the old road – if there was a road here, it would have to cross the stream, and maybe there would be remnants of a culvert or bridge. And it was an unusual looking stream channel, almost semicircular in cross section, like a small half-pipe maybe six feet across. I could see quite aways up the channel, and it was headed in my direction, and I could even see a bit of light at the top, and the channel was pretty clear. I took note of a couple of big flat pieces of Chuckanut Sandstone so I could find this spot again, and set off up the creek.

After I had gone a couple of hundred yards up the stream, remarking to myself how straight and even it was, the semicircularity of the channel started to flatten out and widen and it finally dawned on me that this creek was not NEAR the road – it WAS the road! And sure enough, when I got near the top of the hill it was unmistakeable. Apparently they had just run the road straight up the side of the hill and it turned into a river when it was abandoned. In the steepest parts, where I’d come across it, the trees along the sides of the road had held their soil while the water scoured the road down to the sandstone bedrock, forming that odd half-pipe.


And sure enough again, in short order I came out into the new clearcut and a grand view of Baker and the Sisters and on to the new road at point X. There was even one of the “beaver lodges” that we found on the east summit. I walked along the new road just far enough to convince my self that it is the one that connects with point E; I didn’t go further because I didn’t have my camera, or my water, or my food, and the view here was actually a bit better than at the summit, anyways.

On the way back I hoped to find a flat spot where the old road turned to the northwest, but no such luck. When I reached the two flat stones, the road/creek kept on going down the hill, so I followed it on down. I didn’t want to end up in that logging slash aka Xmas tree farm in the valley, but I was now so close to the road (and my pack) that I wasn’t too concerned about it. (The second map shows the GPS tracks of my bushwhack as dashed red lines.) And soon it leveled out and became an obvious roadbed and suddenly was filled small weedish, sapling-like things. They were six or eight feet tall, but thin and reedy, so I could just plow through them without much effort. And as I came out on the road, right near the point where it spurs off to the west summit (W), I remembered noticing this intersection on our snowy hike and wondering where it went.

So I think we have a winner. I would feel comfortable leading a hike as things stand now, either along the zig-zag “road” or straight up the road/creek, but it would be nice to do a little trail work. The zig-zag would be nicer, I think, but would take more work.

Chuckanut Sandstone


I can’t resist a little bit of geology and another photo. A couple of miles from the trailhead There is a outcropping that I hadn’t noticed before, right near where one of the trails comes out onto the road. It is a textbook example of the Chuckanut Sandstone: the lower layers are the natural blueish-gray color of the stone and the upper layers show the light brown that results from the weathering of the rock. My guess is that this rock face was blasted out in the last two or three years to build the new road used for the recent clear-cutting, so the deeper layers have not been exposed long enough to turn brown.


February 23, 2010

Mounts Erie and Sugarloaf, and the Fidalgo Ophiolite

Filed under: Geology, Hiking — geezerwriter @ 10:29 pm

Last Thursday we were scheduled to hike to Mount Erie and Sugarloaf Mountain on Fidalgo Island, near Anacortes. For a change I remembered to check the geologic map and found that those “mountains” (merely 1300′ and 1100′ high, respectively) are part of a structure called the “Fidalgo ophiolite”. That set me to searching and reading up on ophiolites, and yes, you will be learning about them, too! (Fair warning.)

An ophiolite is not a kind of rock but a series or sequence of related rocks that pops up in a number of places around the world. While the Fidalgo ophiolite is certainly not unique, it belongs to a pretty rare family. An ophiolite sequence can consist of sedimentary rocks, various kinds of volcanic rocks, an intrusive igneous rock called gabbro, all piled on stuff like serpentine and dunite which are actually part of the earth’s mantle. We’ve run into most of those types of rocks (except the gabbro) many times on our hikes in the North Cascades, and most are pretty nondescript, but I was all fired up to see if I could find any of this stuff in real life. Especially the gabbro – I’d learned of it over fifty years ago when I was a freshman geology major at Notre Dame and seen pictures in books, but I’d never encountered it in the wild. [The big black cliffs on the flank of Mount Sefrit that tower over Ruth Creek and the Hannegan Pass trail are reportedly made of gabbro; I’ve intended for years to bushwhack across the creek to the base of the cliffs to snag a sample but haven’t done so, yet.]

The Olympics over Admiralty Inlet

We had another beautiful day for our hike – sunny and chilly as we started out, but quickly warming into the fifties. The hike runs mostly through the woods, with no grand views. We weren’t going terribly fast, and I wasn’t leading, so I could pay some attention to the rocks as we went.

Another reason that I was glad not to be leading: I didn’t know where we were most of the time! The area is a virtual rabbit warren of intersecting and overlapping trails. It is all part of the ACFL, the Anacortes Community Forest Lands, which was acquired and retired from active forestry (i.e., clear-cutting) by the fine folks of Anacortes, who had the generosity and foresight to see that forest lands could have some value beyond that of the potential toilet paper in the tree trunks. It is a wonderful resource for which we should all be grateful, and a hiker might ask, “Can you ever have too many trails?”

I think the answer may be “Yes.” We had a pretty big group (18) so it was inevitable that, despite our modest pace, we would get a bit spread out; there were so many trail intersections that we had to be almost constantly on guard to see that the slower hikers came the right way.

Mount Baker

But still I could keep my eyes on the rocks much of the time. As usual, most of the lower-lying places were filled in with glacial till from the recent (geologically speaking) continental glaciers, and some parts of the trail were old roadways that had been built up with rock that might have been trucked in from anywhere, so the only rocks worth looking at, from my ophiolite-centric point of view, were bedrock exposures. And as usual, again, when there was a big enough chunk to be pretty sure that it had been around for more than a few thousand years, it was likely to be covered with enough moss and lichen to turn any kind of rock into a bland greenish-gray lump.

Actually, though, that’s what I was looking for. According to the geologic map, we would be moving across various kinds of volcanic (i.e., lava) rocks, which are themselves pretty pretty dull and nondescript. Now volcanos are certainly interesting, even exciting sometimes, in themselves (e.g. Mount Saint Helens, ca. 1980) and lava flow sequences can tell interesting stories, but the individual chunks of rocks are kind of boring. They were extruded onto the surface where they cooled very quickly, not allowing time for the individual minerals to gather together into the pretty little crystals that you see in intrusive rocks like granite. Has anyone ever tried to sell you a lovely basalt countertop for your kitchen remodel? I didn’t think so.

Gabbro makes a good bench

The map had promised, however, that if we went far enough south we would to get to the intrusive part of the ophiolitic sequence: that elusive gabbro. But would I find it before we got the the very steep cliff that drops off the south side of Mount Erie and attracts to hang gliders, parasailors and rock climbers to the area? It made sense that I would: the developed crystal structure of gabbro, like other intrusive igneous, gives it great hardness and durability – if anything could survive the scraping and gouging of the glaciers, this would be it. So as we neared the summit I was taking my time and peering closely at every outcrop. I saw nothing that would tell me that the rock wasn’t gabbro (it was pretty dark colored, but by no means black; it didn’t show any flat spots, like slate or schist) but the lichens continued to homogenize everything.

But just as I almost caught up to others at the lunch spot on the summit, I saw a spot that looked different. It was right near the edge of paved trail, and perhaps someone had broken off a piece when building the forms. (I should mention that there is also a road that leads up to the summit, and a big communications facility of some sort.) On closer inspection, I could see a dark, sort of greenish rock with a definite crystal structure – just what I’d been looking for! I stupidly forgot to take a picture of it – the nearest thing I have is one of Cindy and Janet sitting on the gabbro and gazing at the view.

Did I mention that it was a beautiful day? I had never seen the Olympic Mountains so clearly without actually being on the Olympic peninsula with them. But the big surprises were the views of Mount Rainier and Glacier Peak. The latter is always a special treat, since it is so far back toward the Cascade Crest, and so far from what passes for civilization, that you hardly ever get a good look at it. Indeed, the summit of Mount Erie is, to my knowledge, the only place anywhere where you can drive and get a good look at Glacier without a significant amount of hiking.

Glacier Peak and Whitehorse Mountain

On the way back we took a slightly different route, visiting the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain (if I dare use as grand a word as “summit” for the top of this hill). As you can see from the picture below, the exposed bedrock is a bunch of lumps. [Now, I am only talking about the rocks, to be sure.] They are typically lichen-encrusted and I wasn’t able to find any pieces with fresh faces [Really, just the rocks!] so I can’t say anything about their composition, but I’m betting that these are the pillow basalts that also a typical component of an ophiolite. That made it a very good day for me, geologically speaking.

Pillow basalt(?) on Sugarloaf (with hikers)

On the way back we ran slightly afoul of the “too many trail” phenomenon, but as always, Pat led us back to our cars. I really don’t know how he does it in places like this and in the Chuckanuts – I would be in deep doo-doo without my GPS


And if you think that was a lot of geology talk, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Once I got started writing about ophiolites, the professor-that-refuses-to-die inside me took over and just wouldn’t shut up. Figuring that not everyone is enthralled by the niceties of orogeny and geologic history, I decided to split most of the ophiolite talk off into a separate posting with a clear “reader discretion is advised” warning.

The fair ophiolite of Fidalgo Island

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 10:18 pm

This posting is an addendum to one about our hike last week to Mounts Erie and Sugarloaf on Fidalgo Island. Most of that island, which includes the city of Anacortes, gateway to the San Juan Islands, is built on a bedrock base that is called the Fidalgo Ophiolite. Ophiolites have played an important role in a part the history of geology that has some special meaning for me. so the amateur geologist in me, who always likes to rattle on about geological points of interest, got carried away on this one. So I pulled out most of the general talk about ophiolites so that it wouldn’t completely submerge the hike.

So be warned: This is almost entirely about geology and science history, and my experiences with them, and not about hiking.

Another warning: I have absolutely no credentials in the field of geology, just a lifetime of interest in same and a one year sequence of college courses in 1958-9. My main reason for writing all this is to test my own understanding – one of the best ways of testing your understanding of a subject is to try to explain it to someone else. [If you are a REAL geologist, I would appreciate your letting me know if there is any serious BS in here.]

If you can tolerate some pretty heavy geology lingo, the Wikipedia entry on ophiolites has some nice drawing and photos. It was the first place I looked when I started this investigation, and the density of the jargon also was factor in making me want to explain this stuff in simpler language.


An ophiolite is not a kind of rock, but a series of different kinds of rocks appearing together in one mass. It consists of all or most of these elements:

  • Sedimentary rocks
  • Pillow basalts
  • Basalt dikes
  • Gabbro
  • Mantle rocks

How did all these very different kinds of rocks come to be clumped together in one mass? There are two situations that could account for it, and there seems to be some disagreement about which is more prevalent, but either will do for our purposes:

  1. Rift zones like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the seafloor is being stretched; It cracks and new material wells up from the earth’s mantle to fill the crack and form new crust.
  2. Volcanic island arcs like Hawaii, where a hotspot in the mantle causes volcanoes which grow up into islands.

But in either scenario, the main point is that they originated somewhere far out in some ocean, and that is widely agreed upon.

I find it easier to picture the island arc situation, so I’ll base my explanation on it.

Volcanic Island Arc Ophiolites

So picture Hawaii. Not so much the hulas and Waikiki Beach but rather the big volcanos that have grown, and continue to grow, thousands of feet above the surrounding seafloor, all the way up to the surface of the ocean and beyond. They emit lots of lava, and lava that cools in water, whether it is extruded under water or runs down off the newly formed land, forms into hummocky mounds called “pillow basalts”. And remember that most of the mass of the islands is below the surface, so there could be a lot of pillow basalts down there.

Some lava doesn’t gush out onto the surface, but rather seeps into cracks in the nearby crust, forming flattish plates called dikes. And after millions of years, there would be a lot of those, too.

And the main culprit in the island formation is a big, fat ball of magma (a “magma chamber”) extending down into the mantle, below the crust. (“Magma” just refers to molten rock that has not reached the surface; it is not called “lava” until it erupts.) Magma is a mixture of a number of different minerals, and over time the heavier (and coincidentally darker-colored) minerals tend to sink to the bottom; the lighter ones rise to the top and are more likely to erupt. Oceanic rocks don’t generally have huge amount of the lighter minerals, but the magma does get darker and heavier with time. When and if the volcanic activity quiets down and the magma cools, it forms a rock called “gabbro” which is coarse-grained and crystalline like granite, but much darker in color.

And the magma chamber is either in the mantle or resting on it.

So all but one of the components of the typical ophiolite are accounted for by undersea volcanic activity. What about the sediments? Remember that all of the volcanic activity takes place over an enormous period of time, likely with lots of time between eruptions, during which time the new rocks that are at a higher elevation would begin to erode and wash sediments down onto lower ones.

But nothing goes on forever, so at some point the hotspot cools down or moves away, erosion and sedimentation continue, and the whole thing becomes a docile island archipelago.

The plot thickens

Now as long as all this stuff stays on the bottom of the ocean, it would just be run-of-the-mill ocean bottom that no one would ever have reason to comment on, or even see. One of the key aspects that I neglected to mention earlier is that the term “ophiolite” refers not to just any old clump of oceanic crust, but one that shows up on dry land as part of a continent.

The most likely scenario is this: Two sections of the crust are moving towards one another. If one side is composed mainly of lighter weight continental rocks and the other of heavier oceanic stuff, the oceanic plate will sink and be shoved under the continent, making a “subduction zone”. This is what is currently going on just off our coast, where the Pacific Ocean is giving the west coast a massive wedgie.

When two pieces of continental crust collide, however, there will likely be a huge smashup and the crust will crumble and fold and make a great big mess of everything, such as when India crashed into Asia, forming the Himalayas.

Suppose we are looking at a subduction zone with the ocean floor sliding under a continent. [Of course “sliding” is a ridiculously gentle word to describe a process that is enormously violent and goes on for thousands of years.] Now suppose that an old island arc or an old piece of mid-oceanic ridge is carried by the oceanic plate toward our subduction zone. Being at least partially composed of lighter material, it might not slide willingly down into the trench but rather just jam up the works. The forces that are causing the plates to move toward each other are not likely to give up so easily, causing a smaller (but still huge) scale version of the Himalayan thing.

Many times the offending arc is probably forced down under the continent, where it will be remelted, maybe appearing later in volcano somewhere on the land. But now and again the arc might break off from the oceanic plate and be shoved up onto the continental plate and we have an “emplacement” of an oceanic formation onto dry land – an ophiolite is born.

Plate Tectonics and Me

When I took Physical Geology in 1958, the whole idea of “continental drift” (now called “plate tectonics”) was dealt with in my textbook in one paragraph and treated as a childish fantasy; ten years later it was well on its way to being accepted as the principal mechanism of landscape formation on earth. Structures like the “Ophiolite of Fidalgo Island” were an important part of that major achievement in the history of geology and all of science. Ophiolites had long been identified and studied in mountain ranges like the Alps, Andes and Himalayas, but once their mid-oceanic origin had become clear the question became, “How in heaven’s name did they come to be in mountain ranges, especially ones far from any ocean?” Of course I should have said “any present-day ocean” but in those ancient times, it was believed that oceans and mountains tended to stay put and didn’t go gallivanting about the planet! The idea that a chunk of oceanic crust could break off in a collision between continents and end up on dry land would have been quite fantastical.

I was one of those childish types for whom drift made a whole lot of sense. I found the conventional schemes for explaining mountain formation to be contrived and even preposterous. They would have required that rocks go up and down, forming synclines and anticlines, but with no mechanism to explain that movement. Why was it respectable to suppose that rocks were going up and down, but childish to think that they move from side to side? Especially given the whole “gravity” thing? I was more than a little insulted by this. This caused a lack of respect for geology and geologists that contributed in no small way to my changing my major from geology to mathematics. (The fact that I was studying geology in northern Indiana, where they don’t have any geological formations more exciting than a sand dune, also contributed to my disaffection. For our big field trip, we had to travel almost 100 miles to find an exposure of bedrock: a limestone quarry.)

You can imagine my surprise when, just about 10 years later, I was browsing in the Natural Science Library at the University of MIchigan (trying to avoid working on my thesis) when I saw the words “Continental Drift” in large letters on the spine of a thin volume, and found that some of my fellow “childish fantasists” were actually able to get books published on the subject. And there was no small amount of undeserved smugness involved, as you can also imagine. Much later I learned that a very distant relative of mine (about a 7th cousin, with the common ancestor living in the 18th century) named Bruce (or Bruus) Heezen was an oceanographer who had led the first oceanic expedition that actually succeeded in measuring the expansion of the sea floor in the Atlantic Ocean.


Scientists make lots of mistakes, but science generally gets it right. Eventually. There is no particular reason to think that any scientist’s opinion is any better than anyone else’s, and even a well designed scientific study can sometimes result in bad conclusions, especially in “soft” sciences like sociology but even in “hard” sciences like geology where it is often difficult or impossible to run controlled experiments, because of the enormous scale of the phenomena being studied. But the broad body of scientific investigators, testing and bickering and fighting and challenging each other’s results, ultimately filters out the nonsense. The process is often not very pretty (e.g., the recent hullaballoo caused by some climate scientists questionable handling of data) and is often confusing to the lay observer (e.g., the aforementioned hullaballoo) and can take a very long time (Galileo is a good guy, now. Right?), but the results are ultimately more reliable than reading Tarot cards or chicken entrails.

February 21, 2010

Coal Mine Snowshoe

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, Mining, North Cascades — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 1:14 pm

I hadn’t been out on the snowshoes for awhile and was feeling the onset of a case of cabin fever, and the weather forecast was good, so on Monday I went up into the mountains to see what conditions were like on Coal Pass Road. I hadn’t been up there in quite a long time since there has been too much snow at low elevations for the last few years – you have to be able to drive up to an elevation of about 2500′ in order to make it a reasonable hike up to the end of the road in the vicinity of Coal Creek, where there are some great views of Mount Baker.

The road is one of several in the area built back in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I attended a presentation about the CCC several years ago sponsored by the WWU Lifelong Learning program where these roads were discussed. Lately I have seen it referred to as “Coal Creek” Road, but that seems to be another bit of the local geographical silliness – anyone would expect a road with such a name to travel up the valley of the eponymous creek (e.g. Canyon Creek Road) but this road runs up a ridge between Davis Creek and Deep Creek for most of its seven mile length before it even approaches Coal Creek. The road does lead to Coal Pass (or it did at one time) so the old name makes at least some sense.

I was able to drive to 3200′ before the snow covered the entire width of the road. After parking the car I packed up and carried my snowshoes, assuming that this first patch of snow wouldn’t stretch very far. And in fact it extended just beyond the next curve in the road. Aside from one more pretty good snow patch at a creek crossing, it was just bare road for almost a mile, where I was within spitting distance of the end of the road. The snowshoes were still optional at this point, but at least there was enough snow to justify hauling them up the road. (BTW this is at an elevation of 3800′, considerably above the level of the White Salmon lodge at the Ski Area.)

Coleman Glacier Area

The first viewpoint was a bit disappointing. The trees have grown a bit, and although the day was lovely and sunny, Mount Baker was mostly obscured by clouds, with just a few peek-a-boos up into the Heliotrope Ridge / Coleman Glacier area.

I called this “the end of the road” but it is just decommissioned at this point – the old roadway continues on toward the site of the old coal mine that gives the creek and the pass and the road their names. Since it was still quite early and I hadn’t gotten much exercise yet, I headed up toward the mine. It is a bit of a slog since, in addition to the young alder saplings and the occasional fallen tree, the roadway is cut several times by ditches marking the sites of removed culverts.

Chute leading up from mine site

Chute leading up from mine site

A hundred yards or so from the mine, you have to leave the roadway and go downhill for awhile. The tangle of alders gets worse at this point and the trek devolves into a true bushwhack. Not in the sense of getting lost, since you can see the destination all the while – you just have to whack a lot of bushes. And all of a sudden I came across a cleared out channel running right down to the mine site – almost like a mini-half-pipe. (The picture looks back up the “pipe” from the mine.) I have no idea why it it there, but I took advantage of the absence of “bushes” and headed on down.

Part way down the chute the snow had melted from one side, exposing a pile of shiny black rock with brownish-gold frosting on some surfaces. I’m no expert, but I took this to be coal of the high-sulfur persuasion. It didn’t look very much like the stuff we had in our coal bin when I was a kid, but who knows how much that had been processed before I saw it? (And then there is just the remotest possibility that my recollections, sixty-odd years later, might be ever so slightly less than perfect.) I brought home a couple of small pieces with the intention of trying to see if it burns, nut I haven’t gotten around to that.


I had intended to poke around the mine site but it all of a sudden dawned on me what a stupid idea it would be to walking around near a place where there might be very deep holes with the ground obscured by snow, even if seemed to be only a few inches deep.

So I kept to the high ground as I headed back to the old roadway and further on up toward Coal Pass. But the roadway quickly turned into such an impenetrable thicket that I couldn’t be sure if I was still on it. At one point I even circled back onto my own tracks. So I acknowledged defeat and headed back down.

Mount Baker summit in the clouds

Back near the “end of the road” there is a spur that heads up to a logging yard and provides another marvelous viewpoint. By this time the clouds had thinned out a bit but the view was still quite limited.

So the trip was a bit of a bust by a number of objective assessments – very little actual snowshoeing, no exploring the mine, no trip to Coal Pass, not much in the way of photography – it was still wonderful to be out in the sun and the fresh, chilly air. And whenever I stopped clattering around on the crusty snow, the silence was almost perfect, except for a brook here and there or the rare birdsong. That’s something you’re not likely to enjoy at Heather Meadows.

November 11, 2009

Oyster Dome…almost

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 4:55 pm

Lummi & Orcas Islands

Does a forecast of high winds and 100% chance of rain keep us from hiking? Well, some of us, maybe. But there were eleven brave fools souls who came out for the hike to Oyster Dome and I don’t think anyone regretted doing so. Everyone was in full deluge regalia and it seemed as if it were about to rain at every moment; but it only managed a few drops now and again.


Oyster Creek

But the winds came as promised.

The weather around here is generally mild in almost every way – temperatures are moderate all year (80F is considered a “hot” day in summer and daytime temps are seldom below freezing); rain is frequent in the “winter” but is usually a gentle drizzle; and when it snows at all, it is usually less than an inch at a time (and that usually melts the same day).

But the winds! Every now and then the wind just rears up and blows and blows for days at a time. It blows down trees and rearranges your patio furniture and generally  just gets on your nerves, since you just can’t get away from it unless you have a soundproof room where you can hide out

The big fir, cedar and hemlock trees have very shallow root systems, and a very common sight in the woods is a tree trunk lying on the ground and an enormous flat disc of roots and dirt sticking straight up in the air – most people talk about trees having “root balls” but these are “root plates”! So even though we were sheltered by the forest from the direct blast of the wind most of the time on the hike, we had to hope that there would be no sudden visitors dropping onto the trail.

Oyster Cliff

Early on, we decided to skip the short hike from the main trail out to Oyster Dome. We usually get blown off that exposed rock dome and back into the woods even on a moderately windy day, so we went instead on the even shorter trail toward the so-called “Bat Caves”, thinking it might be a bit scenic but not so exposed as the dome above. No one in the group had ever spent much time there and the trail gets a bit sketchy and ill-defined, so we didn’t know whether the pile of enormous boulders that we came to was our intended destination or not. There were big cavities between and under the boulders that might have passed for caves, but Carlsbad Caverns it wasn’t.

But it was a pretty spot, with the sheer cliff rising up to Oyster Dome. I hadn’t done any geology homework before the hike, thinking that everything from Fairhaven down to Blanchard was plain the old Chuckanut Formation, mostly sandstone with some shales and such mixed in. But on the way up the trail there was a whole lot of dark, nondescript rocks along the trail that surely didn’t look like Chuckanut Sandstone, but might have been a shale. There was too much of it and it was too angular to be a glacial deposit (glacier-borne rocks are normally a mixture of types and usually polished into a more or less rounded shape). But up at the “caves” I saw what looked like quartz inclusions in some of the rocks (not unlike the stuff we saw on Anderson Mountain the week before) and that didn’t fit very well with what I’ve seen of the Chuckanut Formation elsewhere.

So when I got home I pulled up the WA state geology department online geologic map, and sure enough the valley of Oyster Creek is the dividing line between the Chuckanut Formation to the northwest and, on the Blanchard Mountain side, a patchwork of the various kinds of (mainly) metamorphic rocks that are typical up in the North Cascades (including the ever popular Darrington Phyllite, again). As far I could tell, given the lack of reference detail on the geologic map, the area around the “caves” is listed contradictorily both as “gabbro” and as “Shuksan Greenschist”. It certainly wasn’t the latter, which I know pretty well, and I thought gabbro was blacker (although I’ve never seen it up close) so more research is needed. Dangnabbit! Now I’ll have to go do that hike again! Rats!

The wind really fired up on our way down Max’s Shortcut on the windward side of the mountain, and the trees were swaying and dancing above us. When we got to the Samish Overlook , which is a popular jumping off point (literally) for parasailors who fly down onto the Samish Flats, it wasn’t windy enough to take us airborne, but it looked like Cindy was ready to try.


Or is that Thor about to send thunderbolts down on Samish Flats?

« Newer Posts

Blog at