Bear Mountain

Bear Mountain in the Wild Sky Wilderness
In 2008, the Wild Sky Wilderness was established by Congress after several years of grassroots lobbying. The areas set aside as wilderness lie largely in the southeast corner of Snohomish County and extend some of the protections that exist thanks to the Henry M Jackson Wilderness. The Wild Sky is comprised of three individual units- Ragged Ridge, Eagle Rock, and West Cady. The Eagle Rock and Ragged Ridge units are both characterized by steep and rugged terrain and the West Cady unit is characterized by miles of alpine meadows. The Eagle Rock unit is surrounded by roads (Index-Galena Road to the west & North, Highway 2 to the south, and Beckler River Road to the east) but lacks any easy access to its interior. Sure, logging’s historical infrastructure of now decommissioned roads provide some small amount of access but this area is devoid of any hiking trails. The creation of a trail plan was required when the wilderness was created but it will be several more years before any of the trails identified get constructed.

I’ve been interested in exploring the Wild Sky for a little while and finally got started this past weekend. I started with photographing Bear Mountain, which is in the northeast corner of the Eagle Rock unit. Using some of the existing forest service roads as a start, my final destination was the ridge line of San Juan Hill. During my research with Google Earth, it appeared to me that there were some open patches located around one of the high points on the ridge. The first thing I encountered on my visit was a decommissioned road. This was aggravating since I checked the Forest Service’s Motor Vehicle Use Map before leaving that morning and it is still shown as drivable. Guess I’d be hiking just little more than I had anticipated.
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Troublesome Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness, Columbia Mountain (back center), Kyes Peak (back right) in the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness
Since they are no trails, the directions were basic: climb uphill until it levels out. The steepness was pretty unrelenting. Many of the trees on the slope were almost J shaped due to the downward pressure that the winter snowpack puts on the trunks. It was a sweat filled 50 minutes to climb the 600 feet to gain the high point for this portion of the ridge but it quickly became worth it. The ridge top did indeed have several clear outcrops that looked both west and to the north. Even better, there were several weather snags that could be used as foreground elements for my photos.

The weather was certainly dynamic. There was a 30% chance of rain and, minute by minute, the amount of blue sky patches would change. It was perfect for a time lapse so I tucked my GoPro behind the base of one of the snags and fired it off. It was quite rewarding to get this peek into the wild interior of the Eagle Rock unit. The clouds did prevent us from enjoying views of Glacier Peak and some of the other more prominent peaks in the distance. Although we didn’t see any, there was evidence that mountain goats had spent some time up on the top (a few tufts of white hairs in the lower branches of a tree).
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (center) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Bear Mountain (center) and Spire Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (center) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
After a healthy amount of time, I ended my time lapse and we packed up our stuff. We weren’t on the “true” summit of San Juan Hill but it wasn’t too far from us to the south. The ridge line is forested but travel wasn’t too bad thanks to the large amount of airy huckleberry shrubs. We even followed a faint trail or game trail for most of our traverse. We were close to the true summit but the point of diminishing returns had been reached. Neither of us felt particularly compelled to reach the highest point (it appears to be 100% forested anyways). The travel back down slope to the decommissioned road wasn’t as bad as our original ascent.

There was still some time left in the day and I decided that it was also high time that I visit the middle portion of the North Fork Skykomish River valley. It’s another place I’ve wanted to visit but haven’t been able to because the road (Index-Galena Road) had been closed to public access for several years due to flood damage. We made our way to the Troublesome Creek Campground. Across the road from the campground is a short nature loop trail along both sides of the creek. The water is clear and a brilliant shade of turquoise at times and the surrounding forest also has some interest as well. I thought there was a waterfall along Troublesome Creek but apparently it’s located along a different creek in the area. Oh well!
Bear Mountain in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Troublesome Creek in the North Fork Skykomish River valley
Boulder detail along Troublesome Creek in the North Fork Skykomish River valley
After coming home, I got a big scare- my memory card failed to read successfully. Oh god. Several weeks ago, I had a similar situation with my GoPro’s memory card. I turned to a card recovery program (RescuePro Deluxe) and it worked a miracle. Would lightning strike twice? Well- just about! I ended up losing a handful of images but I was able to recover the vast majority of them. After four years or so, I guess it was time to retire the memory card. There’s a lesson in there- retire your memory cards before you regret it!

Big Four Mountain

Panorama of the north face of Big Four Mountain Spring means warmer temperatures. And warmer temperatures mean avalanches! This is what prompted me to make a trip up to Big Four Mountain this past weekend. Tucked in the heart of the North Central Cascade Mountain Range, the mountain features an impressive 4,000 foot vertical face on the mountain’s north side. The view is amazing, and in the early 1920s, one of the early industry magnates from Everett thought it would make a great location for a hotel. The Big Four Inn was constructed near the base of the mountain, burned down in 1949, and was never rebuilt. Today, the site of the inn has become a “picnic” area and the only remnant of the inn is the fireplace which still stands in a large open field. For more info about the inn and its history, click here.

The mountain and inn site are located about 25 miles east of Granite Falls and accessed via the Mountain Loop Highway. During winter, the road is closed and gated at Deer Creek (about 2 miles shy of the site). We weren’t sure what to expect for travel conditions since the last report was by the Forest Service almost 2 weeks ago. Optimistically, we brought some cross country skis hoping for a nice glide out and back. As I mentioned a few posts ago, the low elevation snowpack has been melting quick. Here on the Mountain Loop Highway, we experienced the same thing and had to carry our skies a couple times during the initial part of our trip out.

Upper portion of Big Four Mountain. Converted to black & white using Nik's Silver Efex 2
Big Four's north face. Converted to black & white using Nik's Silver Efex 2
Upper portion of Big Four Mountain. Converted to black & white using Nik's Silver Efex 2The skies were clear, the sun was out, and it was getting warm. When we arrived at the picnic area, we had the whole place to ourselves. I decided to set up in the shade of the old fireplace. I spent my time taking several frames for some potential panoramic photos of the face before turning to my telephoto lens and some more intimate scenes of the mountain. We had hoped to witness some nice sized avalanches off the mountain; in reality, it looked like we might have been a week or two late for that. With time, we started to hear cracks and rumbling in the general vicinity of where we were at.

We did have a time constraint so we packed up and headed up the trail towards the Ice Caves viewpoint, which is located near the base of the mountain. The ice caves are a summertime phenomena in which melting snow water hollows out the large piles of avalanche snow that accumulate at the base of the mountain. Caves form and last throughout the summer due to the shade afforded by the mountain. The caves are dangerous and fatalities do happen; the most recent death was a young girl in 2010. This link has a lot of nice old photos of the ice caves over time as well as the Big Four Inn. Once at the viewpoint, our time was limited, and we left within ten minutes. The viewpoint is much too close to the mountain for photography (and safety for that matter!).

Satellite ridgeline of Big Four Mountain. Converted to black & white using Nik's Silver Efex 2
Hall Peak, just west of Big Four Mountain
Snowmelt waterfall and avalanche debris pile at the base of Big Four MountainI was actually a bit eager to head back to a particular spot back out along the highway, about a half mile before the picnic area. Here, the South Fork Stillaguamish River makes a sweeping turn in the foreground with Big Four in the background. The sun wasn’t overhead but wasn’t too far from it. I had to use my graduated neutral density filter technique to slow down my exposure times. The landscape version seemed to work out well but the portrait version had a weird artifact in the lower right corner where the sun reflected on the river’s surface. I don’t know if it was a reflection off one of my ND Grad filters but I was able to correct this in Photoshop with some dodging and burning.

South Fork Stillaguamish River and Big Four Mountain
South Fork Stillaguamish River and Big Four Mountain

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