April 20, 2011

Bushwhacking Olsen Creek – Act I

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

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

The bushwhack is the pink line

The bushwhack is the pink line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GPS Aggravation

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

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

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

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

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

More is not better

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

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

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)

April 28, 2010

Another Stewart Mountain HIke?

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 12:19 pm

Yesterday I went exploring on the south side of Olsen Creek to see if there was any potential for a new “shoulder season” hike. The hike we do most often is on the north side of the creek and goes to a point near the northern summit of Stewart, but on the western side of the ridge where there is no view of the big mountains. We hike for a couple of miles on a logging road and then another couple of miles on a decommissioned road/trail that is steep in places and can be very muddy, or even submerged, especially in the spring.

It had been a number of years since I’d ventured over to the south side. We had planned to go over there once last year, but when we got to the decisive fork on the road we could hear and see that there was some heavy logging activity that was best avoided. About a half mile from the trailhead there is a woodland trail that bypasses some of the road, but it is accessed by fording the creek and the water was just a bit high for me – I was wearing new boots that were advertised to be waterproof but I didn’t want to jeopardize the whole day. Maybe I would come that way on the way back.

View from the end of the new road

So I headed on up the road, taking the fork over the steel bridge and up fairly steeply for a couple of miles and 1000′ of elevation. The recent clear-cutting had opened up some nice views of the north end of Lake Whatcom and the San Juan Islands, the only benefit anyone without a logging truck gains from this scabrous “forestry” practice. Someone once told me that there was a trail somewhere here on the south side of the creek that went north, crossed the creek and joined up with our familiar trail on the north side; one time Jerry had pointed out the junction to me. I didn’t have a lot of hope of finding those old trails, but there was a small, new track leading leading on from the end of the road toward the woods, where a couple of bits of flagging tape were visible. When I got there I found a fairly well established trail. Just a few yards further the trail broadened out into what had to be a very old roadway.

While I was studying my GPS and deciding whether to continue, I happened to look up and see tacked to a tree a small wooden sign with an arrow pointing east: “Ogallala 1,450 miles”. Aside from the obvious indication that somewhere in Whatcom County there is an expatriate Nebraskan with a wood burning kit, this meant that I was back on the old trail: I remembered seeing this sign years ago. (I didn’t remember the details, but I did remember finding a strange “Wall Drug” sort of sign out in the middle of the woods.) Thus I knew I was on some sort of trail, and one that had a chance of looping back to the north across the creek. So I decided to forge on until the trail became hard to follow or until noon or until I’d gone 5 miles, whichever came first.

For quite a while the trail was more or less level, staying between 1550′ and 1650′, rather muddy and a bit overgrown in low spots (there are horse trails, after all), but easy to follow. Sometimes the trail seemed to be on an old roadbed – there is even a quaint wooden footbridge over a stream where there may have been a vehicle bridge once. The only problem was that the track was heading relentlessly to the southeast, getting further and further from the destination I was hoping for. And just past that bridge the trail started climbing. Since the place where the trail would cross the creek would have to be at about 1600′, the climbing wasn’t a good sign either.

But soon the trail turned back toward the north for a good distance, bringing me within about of mile of the north side trail. But then it turned back to the southeast again, and climbed, and back to the north, and back, and up, and I was giving up. At a couple of these turns it looked as if there might be a track to the north, but I was getting tired and certainly not interested in getting into any bushwhacking.

By this time the trail was clearly on an old roadbed with the occasional grove of alders, very easy walking and very bright and sunny. I was nowhere near my five mile limit, but I noticed that it was after 12:30. I found a friendly log and stopped to eat, a bit puzzled that I was so tired and that four hours had gone by. (I didn’t realize until much later that the odometer of my Garmin GPSmap 60CSx was back to its old tricks – after I got home I found that I had gone well over 5 miles.) As I sat there and puzzled things out I realized that I had gone quite a bit further east than expected, and the sunniness probably meant that I was right up on top of the mountain, near the ridgeline.

The Sisters Range

This, and the food, pepped me up a bit; I hustled a few hundred feet up the trail and, sure enough, I was looking over the east side of the ridge at the Twin Sisters, or as much of them as the clouds would let me see. Just a bit to the north was what looked like the stump of Mount Baker and off to the south was Lake Whatcom and the Samish flats (and probably the Olympics)

South Lake Whatcom and the Samish flats

North to the Strait of Georgia

Since I was still paying more attention to my GPS than to my body, I headed on along the roadbed toward the north. My topo maps showed a lot of old roads up here near the ridge, even connecting back to the summit of our usual hike. The track was nearly level and very open so maybe I could make it all the way back there and come down the new trails on the north side of the creek.

But I had gone just a short way when all at once the roadway was covered with fresh greenery, and rounding a curve, there was a set of big excavators and the sound of engines. I chatted up the drivers, who said that they were doing a lot of road building, but that it was too wet to work, so I would have no problem if I went further up the road. But, being of the petroleum-based sort, they couldn’t tell me much about trails, except that there was something called “Trail #5” somewhere near.

Tonka Toys at work on the ridge

Any sensible person would have turned back at this point. Heaven only knows what sort of nastiness a hiker can get into in an active logging operation, and I was probably less than a quarter mile from that viewpoint and from there could follow a nice, safe trail back to the car. But I still was thinking about making a loop, so I decided to go on for a bit on the new road. It was indeed muddy in places, and not a lot of fun, when a I came to a tee in the road. The left branch was newly graded, unsurfaced and headed downhill, in roughly the direction I wanted to go. To the right was an older road, also being rebuilt, probably the old road system I’d seen on my maps. I studied the GPS for awhile and decided that the latter way might be a fairly easy walk, but would be just too darn long, probably 6.5 or 7 miles. It would still make sense to head back the way I’d come (5 miles, or so I thought), but I decided to head down the new road, at least as far as a rock pile that might be the end of it. Or not.

I clambered over the rock pile, which appeared to have been recently blasted, and the road continued. It looked like it deteriorated pretty soon, but there were bits of flagging tape going quite a way into the distance. Hoping that this was an old roadbed that connected with the system I’d left hours before, but fully aware that it might come to a sudden end at any moment, I barreled on down.

This was pretty stupid. Even allowing for the built-in stupidity of the whole idea of an old fart going off in the woods by himself, much less bushwhacking, this counts as major stupidity. I could still find my way back out the way I came, no matter what, and there was plenty of daylight left, but I was tired. And now reversing course would involve a fair amount of climbing. So this was really stupid.

And lucky. The old roadway was soon no wider than a foot trail in spots. Then the roadway was no more, but the flagging continued, down a steep trail. And then there was a fork in the trail and a pair of small signs advertising trails number 5 and 8. I had apparently been on Trail #5 for some time, and it seemed to be heading north and steeply downhill. Trial #8 headed south and uphill – possibly it was the link back to the trail I’s come up on. But I still had a bias toward the north, and my body was shouting “Downhill! Go downhill!”, so #5 it would be.

Trillium by the Olsen Creek crossing

The trail dropped very steeply and soon the roar of the creek was unmistakable, and then an easy creek crossing. I was back down to the 1600′ level now and very optimistic that I would soon find the “standard” Olsen Creek trail. It took almost another mile of easy walking, mostly level, until I came to the spot that Jerry had pointed out. I was surprised to see another trail coming into the picture at this point, but I was not about to do any more exploring. It was at this point that I saved a “track log” on my GPS  and discovered that I had gone 9.5 miles, rather than the 7.5 on the odometer. [Fair warning to all owners of Garmin high sensitivity GPS receivers: don’t put any trust in the odometer (or the elevation log, or even the “moving time” clock) unless you are traveling at speeds above 2 miles per hour in clear weather without trees or hills. Even if the unit says that it has a good signal. Garmin does not acknowledge this problem; I couldn’t even get REI to take an interest, even though they gave me two free receivers before I gave up on the whole thing.]

I ended up going about 11.5 miles with 3500′ feet of elevation gain and didn’t get back to the car until almost 4:00, so I’m not about to put this on schedule for the Senior Trailblazers, even though it suits our name better than most hikes. But a fair amount of my time was spent trying out dead ends and being very cautious and watchful, so just going out-and-back to that viewpoint might be manageable on a lovely day. And even if you didn’t get to the viewpoint it is still a nice walk on the woods.

And then there is the seductive mystery of Trail #8…

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