Early Winter at Deception Creek

Deception Creek in Winter, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
` (storms full of warm, tropical moisture originating near the Hawaiian Islands) which promptly melt away any snowpack that starts to build. Winter is about 3 weeks behind schedule but is FINALLY establishing itself. I had some trouble deciding where to go for my first winter outing but eventually decided on Deception Creek up the Highway 2 corridor. I’ve visited twice before (including during winter) but my winter visit was cut short of my goal due to time constraints.

I’ve described the hike before but long story short- during the winter, the trailhead is not accessible during winter because snow removal operations build a snowbank along Highway 2 where the trailhead turnoff is. The quarter-mile walk along the highway is the worst (and potentially dangerous) part of any winter outing. Thanks to El Nino, no highway walk was required because I could turn off the Highway and park off of the highway. There wasn’t much of a snowpack down along the highway but it did thicken up a bit as we hiked up and approached the summer trailhead. It would have been nice to have visited when the ice along the creek was more substantial but there still were remnants in many spots.

Unlike my previous winter visit, I did make it to a small waterfall and pooled section of the creek. I spent quite a bit of time working some more intimate compositions based on the boulders along the margin of the creek which still had icy perimeters. I didn’t get an early start on this day so it was now late in the afternoon and time to head home. On the way back out, I did stop at one spot which had some icy pendants hanging down off of a log at creek level. It’s always nice to visit this spot because it doesn’t get many winter visitors and yet it’s so close to the busy highway. Even with that proximity, the busy sounds of the highway quickly fade away. Most would never know about it…
Deception Creek in Winter, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Ice Capped Boulder in Deception Creek, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Deception Creek in Winter, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Deception Creek in Winter, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Ice Pendants above Deception Creek, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Baring Mountain and low clouds above the South Fork Skykomish River valley east of Index, Washington
Baring Mountain and low clouds above the South Fork Skykomish River valley east of Index, Washington

BC on Ice

Last year was my first visit up to the Harrison Mills vicinity in British Columbia, Canada. Every year from mid-November through December, thousands of Bald Eagles descend on this area to feast on returning salmon. It’s one of the largest gatherings of eagles outside of Alaska and last year did not disappoint. I had targeted two weekends to visit this year and ended up not making the first weekend. The second weekend came and promised sunny but cold conditions. Just like last year, I made plans to meet up with Michael Russell.

The week leading up to our trip out to Harrison Mills was the coldest stretch of weather the Pacific Northwest has experienced in the last 15 years. Environment Canada even issued what they call is an “arctic outflow” warning for the early part of the day. It’s basically a technical sounding term for really cold winds originating from the interior coming down the Fraser like a runaway freight train. As we crossed the Fraser on Highway 11, we got our first view of how the day would go: icy. The river had wide stretches of ice as as we could see up and down stream.

East of Derouche, we pulled off the highway to check a certain slough and it was solidly frozen over. We started to realize that if the water was frozen over, the eagles probably weren’t going to be able to dine on salmon! As we drove through Harrison Mills, eagles were few and far between. We pulled off at Harrison Flats where last year we enjoyed quite a nice show of eagles. This year….not so much. There were a half dozen eagles hanging out in the trees but only one lone eagle feasting on a salmon. Lucky for us, that happened to be right below the pullout in front of us. For at least 10 minutes, we were treated to a great photo opportunity.
Bald Eagle eating salmon at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagle taking flight at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagles at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
The eagle flew away and suddenly it was pretty quiet. It seemed like a good time to load up and keep looking. We stopped by Kilby Provincial Park and it was also free of any eagles. We drove around to the other side of Woodside Mountain to check out Mountain Slough. Nothing but cold winds. It was pretty clear that the day of eagle watching was over and it was time for Plan B. Michael suggested that we head a little further east to Hope and check out Silver Lake Provincial Park for sunset. That sounded good to me so off we went.

Silver Lake Provincial Park lies 4 miles up Silverhope Creek and features Silver Lake which is nestled at the base of several prominent mountains. The canyon leading to Silver Lake runs north/south and is heavily incised so it doesn’t get much sunlight in winter. Just shy of the turnoff to the park is Eureka Falls, which is a waterfall that directly spills into Silverhope Creek. Not surprisingly, the waterfall was completely frozen on this day but you could just make out water running down below the ice. Anything looking wet was actually ice so you had to be extra careful with footing.

Having had our fill with Eureka Falls, we turned out attention to Silver Lake. The access gate and spur road leading to the park was just up ahead from Eureka Falls. The access gate was open and the road snow-free and that allowed us to drive the remaining half mile to the park’s entrance gate. We parked next to Sowerby Creek which also had plenty of interesting ice formations. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a little time to photograph them. We returned to my truck after sunset but it was too dark by then. The lake and campground is just a five minute stroll beyond Sowerby Creek.
Frozen Eureka Falls along Silverhope Creek near Hope, British Columbia
Frozen Eureka Falls along Silverhope Creek near Hope, British Columbia
Hope Mountain at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia
Silver Lake is a nice sized lake (about 95 acres in size) in a very peaceful setting. High peaks line both sides of the valley but the most prominent peaks (Hope Mountain, Wells Peak, and Mount Grant) tower above the eastern shore of the lake. The lake was well frozen, though we weren’t about to test the thickness of the ice. Sunset was largely cloud free except to the south where a few wispy clouds hung out. Sunset was nondescript but it was peaceful and we had the whole area to ourselves. It only got colder once sunset was done so it was time to call it a day and head home.

We passed a couple of other parked cars as drove drove back down the park access road. As I crossed the bridge over Silverhope Creek, I noticed something wrong- the gate was closed. Oh oh. I parked on the bridge and we got out to go look at the gate. Yeeup, definitely closed. And locked. WTF! I had no tools with me so this suddenly became a bad situation. Michael mentioned that he saw some discarded items back up where we parked outside the park’s entrance that we might be able to use to bust the lock. I certainly had no better options to offer so we headed back uphill to go retrieve the objects.

We encountered the two other cars coming downhill as we headed back up. They were both Hope area locals and were NOT happy when we told them that we were all locked in. We told them about our “plan” and continued uphill as they drove down towards the gate. Having loaded up a metal t-bar post with a concrete base, we headed back downhill to the gate. We arrived to find only one car and a wide open gate. What the hell happened??! As it turns out, the second person (who had an older full size pickup) was angry enough about the situation that he either rammed the gate or nudged up to it and punched it open. Either way, we were free once again!

Seeing how it was -12°C / 10°F outside, I was relieved that we didn’t have to hike back down to Hope to find a pair of bolt cutters. That was certainly a fitting way to end a day filled with adjustments. The gate wasn’t signed at all so why it was closed on us is still kind of a mystery. One of the Hope locals mentioned something about local logging operations which had concerns about their equipment getting vandalized up in the area so maybe one of their people locked us in without bothering to check. Whatever the case, I’ve learned a valuable lesson- CARRY BOLT CUTTERS!
Mount Grant at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park vicinity, British Columbia
Mount Grant and Silver Lake at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia
Hope Mountain and Silver Lake at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia

New Years Sunset

South Twin Sister. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Panorama of South Twin Sister (L), Hayden Peak (C), and Little Sister (R). Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Mount Baker from Huntoon Point on Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Lately I’ve a a run of photographic bad luck. Before Christmas, I visited Mount Rainier National Park and came away with no photos. I followed that up this past weekend with a hike up to Artist Point for sunset. Forecasts called for clearing skies an hour before sunset so dramatic skies could be in play. I was welcomed by wind and near whiteout conditions at Artist Point. Adding insult to injury, the skies did begin to clear out but that happened well after I had turned around and made it back to my truck. I couldn’t get shut out a third time, could I? To test that theory, I returned to Artist Point on New Years Day where the forecast was for “mostly clear” skies. On my way there, I couldn’t help but stop along Highway 9 to photograph the Twin Sisters Mountains. As I have learned, clear skies and sunshine may not be great for color photographs but they can be great for black & white photos.

I arrived at the Heather Meadows parking lot at the Mount Baker Ski Area and skies weren’t clear. To be more specific, they were “mostly overcast” and actually trending towards cloudy. Where the hell did this come from?? A bad omen but I still had a couple hours til sunset so anything could happen. Doning my snowshoes and a sense of deja vu, I headed yet again up towards Artist Point. It looked like many other people had the same idea (watching sunset from Artist Point) because I noticed just as much uphill traffic as people heading down. After a couple more days of sun and no new snowfall, the snowshoe routes were packed down a bit more and quicker. Even with the 30+ pounds of crap in my backpack, I made good time and reached the Artist Point parking lot in 1 hour 15 minutes (roughly 1.3 miles and ~1,000 feet of gain). The route up to Artist Point is, for the most part, benign but I am constantly shaking my head in disbelief as I watch people hike the direct route up towards Huntoon Point through the most dangerous terrain possible. The ridge between Huntoon Point and Artist Point gets SEVERELY wind loaded. Now throw in the switchbacks of the summertime road and you now have terrain traps. You’re asking for trouble by crossing this zone. In fact, in 2003 three people were caught in a slab avalanche which ultimately killing one of them. This is why I always head straight towards the parking lot, taking the short, steep headwall just left of the Blueberry Chutes or contouring around the headwall and doubling back at the first chance.

Anyways, at Artist Point, I admired the view south down the Swift Creek valley towards Baker Lake but also lamented the change in the weather. It was now completely overcast everywhere except towards the far south. My dreams for a colorful sunset were dashed. I still had time to kill before sunset so I headed out towards Huntoon Point. Along the way, I scoped out the various trees encased in ice just like the trees in the Finnish Lapland. Eventually, I topped out on Huntoon Point’s 5,247 foot summit. Despite skies which still weren’t clearing out, I was determined to take at least some photos. I began my hike back towards Artist Point but stopped along the way to photograph the gigantic ice trees. One grove in particular hand a number of interestingly shaped limbs which I used to frame Mount Baker in the distance.
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
The only color to be seen was over 50 miles to the south/southeast and so I made the judgement call to head back to my original viewpoint over the Swift Creek drainage where I figured I could come up with some sort of composition. I passed another couple enjoying the views with some hot beverage and set up my camera to begin shooting. After a while, the couple near me headed back to their car and the clouds above Mount Baker had the faint hint of reflected color. More time went by and the color began to slowly build up. I couldn’t believe it- the color turned a fiery, vibrant red! I was cold to the point of my teeth almost chattering but I quickly attacked the developing scene in front of me. This metamorphosis of color lasted about 15 minutes. It faded away and I felt extremely lucky to have witnessed it. I should know better, especially since I have been witness to these types of displays before. None the less, it always leaves me in awe when it does happen.

Awe doesn’t keep you warm so it was time to go! It was already dark enough to don my headlamp for the hike out. My hike out was peaceful except for the crunch of snow beneath my snowshoes. Across the Bagley Lakes basin, I could make out the headlamps of two skiers making an ascent of Mount Herman for some night time turns. This was a fabulous way to start the new year!

Welker Peak and the cloud covered Baker Lake valley from Artist Point
Mount Baker and Swift Creek drainage from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Fading Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Fading Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point

Park Butte Sunset

Mount Baker peek-a-boo from the Baker Lake Road
Mount Baker and wetland from the Baker Lake Road
Fall is starting to appear here in the Pacific Northwest but so far we only have the morning fog and cooler temperatures. Friday evening saw a wonderful sunset over the Puget Sound and, with a developing high pressure ridge, I thought there might be a chance for a repeat performance. After debating where to go, I decided on the Park Butte area on the south side of Mount Baker. As it is, I’m one of the few people that HAVEN’T visited the Park Butte Area.

Like Mount Rainier, the glacier capped Mount Baker is visible from many locations around the Puget Sound. The southern flank of the mountain is adorned with the Easton, Squak, Deming, and Talum Glaciers. For mountain climbers, the Easton Glacier is the most popular and default route up the mountain. For Hikers, Park Butte holds a fire lookout and a great view of Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters to the Northwest from a 5400′ high point on the mountain. For either type of outdoor enthusiast, the journey starts at Schriebers Meadow at 3300 feet and a fairly level wander through acres of huckleberry meadows.

Mount Baker reflection in Morovitz Meadows
Mount Baker from Morovitz Meadows
After about 0.8 miles, the trail crosses a series of braids that make up Rocky Creek. The name is quite appropriate because rocks and boulders are everywhere. The rippled landscape reminds me very much of hiking on the slopes of Mount Adams or Mount Saint Helens. After another quarter mile or so, the trail begins to switch back up to gain access to Morovitz Meadows. After about 1.5 miles of switch backing, you reach a trail junction with the Scott Paul Trail. This secondary trail also begins at Schriebers Meadows but takes a 6 mile meandering loop up into the alpine environment before its terminus at the Park Butte Trail. Pay close attention to this intersection during daylight if your plans are to shoot sunset and hike out. More on that later!

From the Scott Paul Trail junction, the views open up impressively. The Black Buttes rise abruptly in the distance in front of you and Mount Baker itself is lies through some small alpine trees on your right. As we entered the meadow, there was some fall color in the huckleberry leaves but the actual huckleberries were still very green! It seems as though last winter’s snowpack was very stingy and didn’t go willingly. The only wildflowers I remember seeing were some Sitka Valerian in prime bloom along a small creek.

Mount Baker and the Railroad Grade from Morovitz Meadows
Mount Baker sunset from near Park Butte
A little ways further, you reach another trail junction. This is the main turnoff for all the mountain climbers- the Railroad Grade (named for its steady rate of ascent like a railroad). The Park Butte trail continues across a large open basin before it switchbacks up to a plateau alongside the actual Park Butte lookout ridge. Before that, however, I became tempted to try some reflected mountain shots in a small pool of water in the meadow. We didn’t time our hike correctly so the “golden hour” was just starting.

I took my shots (too quick as I look back on them!) and then did my best to quickly ascend to the plateau. The plateau is about 25 acres in size and very open with three decent sized tarns. The southernmost tarn was made famous by the great Pacific Northwest photographer Lee Mann with this photo (look for “1213 Koma Kulshan”). As much as I don’t care for shooting “icons”, this is where I wanted to go on this day. My hope was that I could find a different take on this view or something different altogether.

Mount Baker sunset from near Park Butte
Mount Baker sunset from near Park Butte
As I finally got to the edge of the plateau, the sunset light was really starting to change and I had a decision to make- attempt to make the quarter mile cross country hike to the tarn or find a composition where I was. The sunset was cloud free and almost at the best light so, rather than risk coming back with nothing, I decided to find something where I was. Quite luckily, I happened to like the scene that spread out in front of me. I noticed a rocky hump off trail so I rock hopped to make my way over to it.

The ridge line directly behind me had already put me in shade so I knew that I needed to use one of my neutral density grad filters. I decided on my Lee 0.6 soft edge and began to take shots. After the last warm light on Mount Baker faded, I packed up and sought out my friend, who had continued on ahead of me and onto the plateau. I forgot to check the time for moonrise and quickly found out that this wasn’t it. Before making the hike out, I quickly looked around for a panorama composition. Truthfully, I’m pretty happy with how this turned out!

Mount Baker sunset from near Park Butte
Sunset light travels up the Easton and Deming Glaciers on Mount Baker
The temperature really started to fall once the sun went down. I didn’t get too far back down the trail before turning on my headlamp. The trail was fairly moist and mucky at times so I wanted to be sure of my footing. The trail may be a freeway during the day but it’s a ghost town at night. This DEFINITELY is bear country and a hiking trip report from the day before mentioned crossing paths with a bear about the base of the switchbacks.

For this reason, my friend and I were pretty chatty and noisy on the way out. We passed the trail junction with the Railroad Grade and then the junction with the Scott Paul Trail. We entered the forest but, after a while, something seemed off. Neither of us remember a creek being so close, loud, and visible alongside the trail. We crossed the creek and then the trail started climbing. The became a bit more narrow as well. What the hell??

Last light of sunset on the summit of Mount Baker
Mount Baker panorama at dusk from near Park Butte
We stopped to think about where we were. As near as I could figure, we must have turned ONTO the Scott Paul trail rather than go past the trail junction. We backtracked along the trail, past the creek and then soon were back at the junction we missed. Apparently it was a sharper switchback in the trail than I remembered during the daylight! Almost immediately, we recognized things along the trail which confirmed we were back on the right track. Making steady progress, we talked, yelled, and clanked our hiking poles to make our presence known.

90 minutes after starting our hike out, we arrived at the trailhead (sans any wildlife encounters). The views here really are amazing and I can’t believe I waited this long to make my first visit!

Van Trump Park

This past weekend, I had hoped to take advantage of the virtually full moon with a trip down to Mount Rainier National Park. I opted to head for a new location within the park and decided on Van Trump Park on the mountain’s south side. The wildflower meadows of Van Trump Park have looked nice in photos I’ve seen and the viewpoint offered by Mildred Point also looked mighty impressive. The area can be accessed by two different trails but the more “direct” route is via the trail up to Comet Falls.

The Park Service says that it’s 1.8 miles to Comet Falls and then another 0.8 miles up to Van Trump Park with a total elevation gain of 2,000 feet. The waterfalls make this a very popular hike and I had some doubts about finding a parking spot during the middle of the afternoon. As luck would have it, there were two spots available so we quickly grabbed one of them. Washington has been experiencing its own “heat wave” so the temperature was in the 80s to start our hike. Thankfully, the hike is mostly forested which helps moderate the temperatures slightly.

Van Trump Falls from the trail to Comet Falls - Mount Rainier National Park
Van Trump Falls from the trail to Comet Falls - Mount Rainier National Park
Van Trump Falls from the trail to Comet Falls - Mount Rainier National Park
The trailhead itself is just west of Christine Falls and stays close to Van Trump Creek once it finally crosses the creek. Ascent is steady but manageable except the last 1/3rd of the distance to Comet Falls where some switchbacks increase the rate of elevation gain. Van Trump Creek is very pretty with constant twists, turns, and drops. About 200 yards before Comet Falls, the trail crosses and East Fork of Van Trump Creek and just below the triple falls of Van Trump Falls (also known as Bloucher Falls).

We dropped packs to take a break and to take some photos. The creek here has some nice back & forth movement over bedrock. After finishing up, we traveled around the corner for our first good look at Comet Falls. The main waterfall is main attraction but just downstream from Comet Falls are two sizable waterfalls in succession. Immediately around the Comet Falls area was a real nice display of wildflowers including Lupine, Arnica, Cow Parsnip, Sitka Valerian, and American Bistort. It may be September but the falls still had a nice amount of volume to it.

Wildflowers and Comet Falls - Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier from Van Trump Park - Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier from Van Trump Park - Mount Rainier National Park
We were somewhat pressed for time so I wasn’t able to really explore the compositions available around Comet Falls. On paper, the trail gains MORE elevation than the hike up to Comet Falls but it didn’t feel that way. The toughest part above Comet Falls was tempered by the ever expanding views and wildflowers. The trail finally levels off and then arrives at a junction. To the left, the trail winds its way towards Mildred Point (another 0.9 miles away) and to the right lie the expanding meadows of Van Trump Park. We managed to arrive about an hour before sunset so we had some time to head further into Van Trump Park to look for good displays of wildflowers.

The trail into Van Trump Park ends officially in 0.3 miles but the path continues onward and upward. Shortly after this point, the trail bisects a real nice meadow so we decided to stop here. One thing I thought I’d never see- Avalanche Lilly blooms in prime condition in SEPTEMBER! Although our day had been largely bug free, the meadow was a different matter. I think the mosquitoes knew that their season was shorter than normal so they were fairly aggressive. Through in some warm weather and odds are you’re getting a lot of bites because you’re not wearing long sleeves of pants!

Wildflowers in Van Trump Park - Mount Rainier National Park
Wilson and Van Trump Glaciers - Mount Rainier National Park
Kautz Chute and Wapowety Cleaver - Mount Rainier National Park
Sunset was fairly sublime and didn’t offer much dramatic light over Rainier or the Tatoosh to the south. We hastily made a retreat from the clouds of mosquitoes and then leisurely hiked back down to Comet Falls. The moon had risen above Cushman Crest to our east but wasn’t rising very fast. About halfway down to Comet Falls, we stopped to put on our headlamps and continued on. Reaching Comet Falls before the moonlight did, we stopped to assess our options. I wanted to take some moonlit shows of Comet Falls and that seemed like it would be a LONG wait.

In the end, we both made to decision to hike out. We had to really watch our footing on the way out so it took longer than I expected to make it back out. The trailhead was quiet and deserted except for my lone truck. It was just after 9pm, and we decided to drive up to Ricksecker Point to admire the mountain bathed in moonlight. Despite a virtual full moon, the moonlight wasn’t that strong. A smoggy haze made the mountain appear like one of those landscape paintings in the background of a 1950s movie.

Wildflowers in Van Trump Park - Mount Rainier National Park
Sunset from Van Trump Park - Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier in moonlight from Ricksecker Point - Mount Rainier National Park
I’m currently using my old dSLR body (my Pentax K-5 is getting a warranty repair at the moment) and night photography is not one of its strong points. We spent about an hour or so at the view point as I experimented with different exposure lengths. I just wasn’t getting any good shots and we needed to decided whether to car bivy for a sunrise shot the next day or head back home. I ended up voting for the long drive home. The thought of driving back through South Hill / Graham / Kent / Renton / Bellevue on a Monday morning didn’t appeal to me.

This was a nice first trip into Van Trump Park. Pressed for time, we weren’t able to make it all the way out to Mildred Point. This is something I’d like to correct sometime in the future (the vast canyon view from there looks fantastic). The wildflower display here might not be as stunning as Paradise or Mazama Ridge but the greater potential for solitude more than makes up for it.

Mount Rainier Biathlon

My first connections to the Pacific Northwest began with a visit to the Carbon River valley portion of Mount Rainier National Park. My first visit to Green Lake as well as the hike to the snout of the Carbon Glacier left such an impression that I wanted to make this area my home. Through the years, I’ve made repeated visits to both. I had wondered about what lay beyond the glacier’s snout and one summer, I made my first hike up to Moraine Park.

Tucked away alongside the Carbon Glacier, Moraine Park starts about 5300 feet and is bordered to the south by Moraine Ridge at 6000 feet. The Wonderland Trail bisects the area and I’d hazard a guess that the majority of its visitors are Wonderland Trail hikers on their way to Mystic Lake and destinations beyond. I have made the hike to Moraine Park three times before. My first time, I was blown away by the display of Avalanche Lillies along the trail in lower Moraine Park. On another visit, I explored Moraine Ridge (the high point on the Wonderland Trail in this area) and eventually found myself perched above the sprawling Carbon Glacier and the formidable Willis Wall and north face of Mount Rainier.

My last visit was five years ago. Since then, the active nature of the Carbon River down in the lower valley damaged the Carbon River Road so severely that the National Park Service finally gave up on the road. These days, if you want to visit Moraine Park, you must hike or bike the 5 miles of the road AND THEN hike 8 miles. Through the years, this has been a pretty big deterrent but my fading memories of the views finally compelled me to return.

My last visit was with my point & shoot so I really wanted to capture the views with my latest SLR gear. Luckily, I was able to convince a friend to join me on this long outing which I’ve dubbed the Mount Rainier biathlon. I know we needed an early start so I met him in South Hill at about 7am. From there, we made our way to the Park’s Carbon River entrance. To my surprise, the small lot next to the ranger station was already full so we parked alongside the road just inside the gate. We geared up and set out on our bikes around 8:30.

Ipsut Creek and Ipsut Falls - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River and Mount Rainier - Mount Rainier National Park
I’ve hiked the road several times on my way to Green Lake and biking the road definitely made quick work of the distance! The road is steady (but gently) uphill so I knew the ride back would be low effort and a relaxing end to the whole outing. The road has about 3-4 major sections of damage but otherwise is a gravel road still in good condition. The damaged sections a little tricky to navigate due to large amounts of cobble and sand. As you reach the Ipsut Creek Campground (road end and trail head), you navigate through some of the most severe damage. After just over an hour, we reached the campground where we locked up our bikes to an eye hook at one of the camp sites.

Now it was time to travel on foot. The first quarter mile of trail has always struck me as some of the prettiest stretch of the Carbon Glacier Trail. The flood damage of recent years has changed that. Throughout the day, I found myself telling my friend “wow- that’s different” a number of times. Although I’ve hiked the trail a number of times, I never stopped at Ipsut Falls. We made the brief side trip and the dappled sunlight through the trees really made a beautiful scene.

Carbon Glacier snout - Mount Rainier National Park
North face of Mount Rainier and tarn from Moraine Ridge - Mount Rainier National Park
Pressing on another two miles we reached the junction with the trail that crosses the river valley and joins the Northern Loop Trail. At some point the “traditional” trail to the Carbon Glacier became damaged so, for now, hikers are rerouted across to the north side of the valley. I have to admit that the north side is prettier and more aesthetic. After about 1.5 miles, we reached the snout of the Carbon Glacier. The wildflowers alongside the trail here were about prime and putting on a nice show. We rested a bit in preparation for the climb up and into Moraine Park.

While the day had been pleasant and cool to start, the climb up away from the snout was in the sun and the sweat began to pour. After another mile, we reached the Dick Creek camp and the shade of the forest for the final switchback climb to Moraine Park. Your arrival in Moraine Park is the crossing of Moraine Creek. Suddenly the forest is a bit more open and parkland. The trail travels up a gully between what I guess are two older lateral moraines.

North face of Mount Rainier and the Carbon Glacier from Moraine Ridge - Mount Rainier National Park
Storm clouds and Mount Rainier from Moraine Ridge - Mount Rainier National Park
In this lower portion of Moraine Park, we finally hit some snow patches but nothing substantial. As a testament to our non-summer, I guess that we were perhaps a week shy of “prime” Avalanche Lilly conditions. Many were in bloom but still more were preparing to bloom. We enjoyed the pleasant stroll that leads you up to the large 13 acre meadow below Moraine Ridge. This meadow provides you with your first BIG view of the north face of the mountain. Suddenly, all the large old growth trees you hiked past seem small.

At the far side of the meadow, a short series of switchbacks take you up to the 6,000+ saddle (also part of the divide between the White River and Carbon River drainages). While the Wonderland Trail continues downhill another 0.6 mile to Mystic Lake, a way trail heads west past a couple tarns and steadily climbs up through the subalpine parkland. After cresting a knoll with a worthy view of its own, the path grows a bit more fainter and drops down into a small tundra-like basin. Climbing through stunted heathers and wildflowers, there’s just one final scramble up the lateral moraine to one of the best views in the park.

Mount Rainier and Carbon Glacier from Moraine Ridge (portrait version) - Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier and Carbon Glacier from Moraine Ridge (landscape version) - Mount Rainier National Park
Throughout our push to this point, we saw clouds slowly creeping up from the lower Carbon River valley. As we dropped our packs and I broke out my camera gear, the clouds caught up with us. They lifted faster than I was able to set up for my first shot. Luckily, we had some time to spare before our turnaround time of 5pm. In a few minutes, the clouds parted like they tend to do in the mountains and we were treated to clear views of the mountain and glacier. We had the entire view to ourselves and the only sounds were the large waterfall across the valley from us and the ping-ponging of rocks within the Carbon Glacier below us.

We soaked in the sights as much as we could but eventually we had to turn back. After spending most of the day ascending nearly 4800 vertical feet, the descent went much faster. I had passed on taking a particular shot from the lower end of the Moraine Park meadow on our way up because I thought it would be better light on our way back. We were racing to beat the upwelling clouds and I thought we would just beat it. Turns out I was wrong. As I swung my tripod out of my backpack, the clouds drifted in. I was only able to rattle off just two shots before the clouds obscured the mountain permanently.

Mount Rainier and Carbon Glacier from Moraine Ridge - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon Glacier detail - Mount Rainier National Park
My friend noticed this one tree in the area whose bark had been peeled away like a banana by a bear. It definitely made a curious sight. The time for photography was over and now it was time to hike out. We had a LONG way to go and not many more hours of daylight. The cumulative effects of the day were already wearing on me. After replentishing our water, we set out. One by one, we again passed milestones from earlier in the day.

Our last break was the final bridge across the Carbon River, 2 miles from the trailhead. I felt completely spent but light was fading like sand through an hourglass. I had given a time estimate to my girlfriend about when we would be done and I knew that we would be off- A LOT. One last time, we stood up and plowed onward. At this stage of fatigue, auto-pilot mentality clicks in. The scenery fades away and my only focus is on my footing to prevent a trip or stumble. The closer we got to the trailhead, the darker the forested sections of trail got.

Carbon Glacier detail - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon Glacier detail - Mount Rainier National Park
We finally passed the turnoff for Ipsut Creek and I knew we were finally down with the hike. Of course, we still had 5 miles of road to navigate in the dark. Both of us came prepared with headlamps so we did the best we could. There is nothing like absolute pitch black darkness and pale LED light to make you unsure of how to ride a bike. I think I would have felt safer with training wheels! Within a short distance away from the campground, I stopped abruptly and promptly fell over. I heard a sickening sound which I assumed was a piece of camera gear breaking.

No time to check- have to keep moving. The undamaged portions of the road went by as smoothly as could be expected. The occasional section of sand and cobble would instill fear and several near misses were averted. The whole dark bicycle ride out was somewhat of a surreal experience. We rode wobbly side by side to combine the lighting of our headlamps. The huge old growth trees in the peripheral of my vision looked like fog and the whole road ahead seemed to be a featureless landscape.

Last glimpses of Mount Rainier from Moraine Park - Mount Rainier National Park
Moraine Park tree stripped of its bark by a bear - Mount Rainier National Park
After making our way through the last damaged section of road (first on the way in), we were able to comfortably coast our way back to the ranger station and my truck. Eventually, the reflectors on the access gate came into view and we were back at my truck. Time? 10pm on the nose. A very, very long day had finally come to an end without any severe injuries. Granted, I could barely walk and I was 3 hours over the time I said I would be done hiking but still a successful day.

Reaching Moraine Park has always been a serious effort and with the road’s demise it has become even more so. Three backcountry camps lie within 4 miles of Moraine Park so I would wholeheartedly recommend a visit to anyone.

Winter won’t leave

Ever since the calender made it official and told us that it’s springtime, the weather has actually reverted back into winter. It’s the 21st of April and snow levels are STILL dipping down below 1000 feet and we haven’t had a single high temperature of 60 degrees. Thankfully I love winter! Coming into the weekend, I had some interest in shooting some scenes of skunk cabbage, one of the sure signs of spring.

Cornice along the Shuksan Arm. Converted to black & white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2
As it turned out, the spots in the upper North Fork Nooksack River valley I was thinking of were still solid snow and not accessible. It’s sure been a jeckyl and hyde winter! Up at the Mount Baker Ski Area, crowds have dwindled down to mostly the diehards despite a substantial snowpack. For yet another weekend, the weather proved to be dramatic and offered periods of cloud, sun, and even light snow.

Clouds straddle a ridge of Mount Shuksan. Converted to black & white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2
Maybe I never really paid attention before but this has been one heck of a winter for scenes of clouds lapping over and around the impressive summit of Mount Shuksan. The sun’s path through the sky also changes which now lights up the snowy slopes of the Shuksan Arm enough to add dramatic shadows. The spring sunshine really brings out all of the subtleties of these slopes. As you can see from some of these shots, they are reminiscent of the jagged mountains of Alaska, Karakoram, or Himalayas.

Summit pyramid of Mount Shuksan peeks through clouds. Converted to black & white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2
I kept seeking and taking shots while the light allowed for it. Of course, these photos were color but the interplay of clouds and mountain just beg for a black & white treatment. I recently received my copy of Nik’s Silver Efex 2 so I went for it. After finishing up at the ski area, I revisited Razor Hone Creek. Incredibly enough, the creek still lies buried underneath the multiple feet of snow that covered it last month. This spot usually has a nice 10 foot waterfall but not on this day:

Razor Hone Creek buried in snow
Back down in the valley, I stopped along the river at a location I never realized existed (partly because it’s typically buried under more snow). It’s nothing more than an unofficial “party” spot along the river and is a pullout inside a grove of large old growth cedar trees. The river here is fairly calm with a few gravel bars. Lucky for me, the upstream valley slopes were still flocked with fresh snow:

Small driftwood pile along the North Fork Nooksack River
Red river cobbles along a gravel bar on the North Fork Nooksack River
Gravel bar along the North Fork Nooksack River
I wanted to go scout some of the Middle Fork Nooksack but that ended up having to wait until another time…

Bigma Fun

Sigma 50-500 'Bigma' mounted to my Pentax K-5
I recently ended a long quest to pick up my “wildlife”zoom lens. As a brand, Pentax has not kept up with developing long length zooms (or primes for that matter) for use in wildlife photography. The Pentax branded lenses out there hail from the end of the days of film and the FA series of lenses. For modern times, options are really limited to a few offerings made by third party lens developer Sigma.

Sigma has been producing their 500mm (750mm equivalent with the Pentax 1.5x crop) beasts for a while and their offerings boil down to the 150-500 or the 50-500, which is affectionately known as the “Bigma.” Based on my research, the 50-500 was held in high regard for both it’s image quality and value. The current version of this lens retails for about $1600 in a Pentax mount and uses a HSM motor for focusing. Pentax’s own lenses with HSM motors have been suspect so I wanted to avoid this and target a used copy of the previous version of this lens (the 50-500mm F4-6.3 APO DG).

I thought I had scored a deal on one using eBay but the seller had mistakenly listed their Nikon mount lens as a Pentax mount.There’s nothing worse than opening a box and realizing the lens you see won’t fit your camera! Anyways, fast forward a few weeks and I found an individual selling their one year old Bigma for $825 on a Pentax forum. For an additional $50, the seller threw in a UV and Polarizer filter so I jumped on it.

I’m not really a wildlife photographer but occasionally find myself in those kind of situations. What’s more, there have been a few times when I knew that the extra length beyond my normal 300mm tele would have yielded a much stronger composition and image. I’ve wanted to take this lens out for a spin but haven’t had the time until a few days ago. I tried stopping by the Mosquito Lake Rd bridge over the North Fork Nooksack River but there wasn’t a single Bald Eagle to be found. If I was going to use this lens, it would have to be landscapes.

Before that, however, I stopped briefly at Nooksack Falls. I hoped to get a “wintertime” counterpart to my ladder-aided shot of Nooksack Falls from last summer. To my disappointment, much of the snow that fell a couple weeks ago has melted away..

Nooksack Falls (Portrait version)
Nooksack Falls (Landscape version)
After that, I continued up the Mount Baker Highway to hit the slopes at the Mount Baker Ski Area. The skies were partly sunny with clouds drifting in and around the neighboring peaks. Perfect for dramatic photos! I decided to only use the Bigma so all of these photos were taken with the 50-500 and a UV filter:

Mount Shuksan summit clouds (Sigma 50-500 @ 138mm)
Mount Shuksan summit clouds (Sigma 50-500 @ 420mm)
Snow Cornices along the Shuksan Arm (Sigma 50-500 @ 420mm)
Snow Cornices along the Shuksan Arm (Sigma 50-500 @ 500mm)
Snow flocked trees along Ptarmigan Ridge in the Mount Baker Wilderness (Sigma 50-500 @ 500mm)
I’m really happy that I picked it up. It is a HEAVY lens and weighs in at over 4 pounds. I won’t be taking this out on a hike very much! Another caveat is its construction so you should be mindful of its use during extreme conditions. Living in the wet confines of the Pacific Northwest, I’m very accustomed to being out in rain and snow. My camera body has weather seals but my lenses do not. I have not found this to be an issue overall but the Bigma is put together slightly different.

Front most element is retained by six screws to the barrel. I would have concerns about water penetrating this seal and take some precautions
Six screws retain the front most element of the lens to the rest of the extending body of the lens. Given our proclivity to rain, I’m real concerned about moisture penetrating this seal. Thankfully, I have found an inexpensive solution but I’ll blog about that after I have had some time with it in actual rainy conditions. My Manfrotto ballhead can support the weight of the lens and camera but it is sensitive to vibrations. Using the camera’s timer or better yet a remote control helps mitigate for this.

The extra 200mm at the extreme end of the range does make a difference. There’s been one composition out along the Shuksan Arm that I’ve wanted to shoot but have been unable to since it won’t fill the frame at 300mm. It now does and hopefully I’ll be able to shoot it before the end of ski season next month. Focusing is fairly fast and snappy but it has hunted for focus in low light and low contrast conditions. I’ve been able to work around this by either selecting a higher contrast focus point or by pointing the lens at a higher contrast portion of the scene and then recomposing for my original scene.

The Canon / Nikon versions of this lens have a few switches near the mount which control zoom creep and manual / auto focus. The Pentax version only has the zoom lock switch and I gave myself a heart attack as I unintentionally discovered that manual / auto focus is controlled by a push/pull of the focusing ring. I thought I had broken the lens!

My last comment is about the lens hood, which requires some consideration. The horizontal petals almost half the depth of the vertical petals, presumably to avoid appearing in the frame at 50mm. My very first attempt using this lens was at a local estuary wetland during a windy rain. Although I was perpendicular to the wind, it was blowing water droplets in and onto the front of the lens. This is something I have not encountered with my Pentax DA55-300 which uses a lens hood with a uniform, deep length. This isn’t calamity by any stretch but I think folks should be aware of such things. Sometimes the photos we take can’t be duplicated so I would hate to loose a photo because I didn’t check for water droplets!

[UPDATE] I haven’t had many opportunities to use this lens until recently when I visited Boundary Bay in British Columbia to photograph the Snowy Owls. You can see those photos in my blog post here.

Snow Returns to the Valley

Things in the North Fork Nooksack River valley were looking more normal after what probably will be the last significant lowland snow event. My day up on the slopes at the Mount Baker Ski Area were unfortunately cut way short due to an equipment issue. I packed up and then headed back down into the valley to scout around. Razor Hone Creek has thwarted my efforts to reveal its treasures several times but I spied a relatively easy access point to try out. I feared a laborious wallowing effort and it proved to be true. In the absence of snowshoes, every step sunk down to the crotch. I had to fill my post hole with snow and then tamp it down with my foot to come up with a stable base. Drawing closer to the creek, I didn’t hear it. I feared that the creek had become buried by the 5+ feet of snow during the previous week. Retreating back to the road, I walked back to the bridge over the creek and confirmed that the creek was, indeed, buried. On to the next location!

Back down in the valley, I stopped at a location I have visited before (but not this winter). It’s the western end of short stretch of rapids along with a modest slot canyon. An unnamed creek originating high on Excelsior Ridge also flows into the river at this spot. The fresh snow was nicely piled up on the boulders in the river:

Fresh snow along the North Fork Nooksack River
I didn’t find much new or very compelling so I moved on. Close to spot where I took one of my favorite panoramas of the river, I explored a short stretch of river located between that location and a second location I looked at earlier this winter. Right away, I noticed this small cave which had a dense number of icicles inside of it. The rain was trying to turn to snow but wasn’t being very successful.

Icicles cling to a sheltered nook along the North Fork Nooksack River
From here, I decided to head upstream and that required negotiating around a large logjam. On the other side was the tail end of a stretch of rapids. In the middle of the river was a piece of wood, partially frozen and covered with snow which reminded me of a gun from a World War II warship.

Fresh snows along the North Fork Nooksack River
Fresh snows along the North Fork Nooksack River
Fresh snows along the North Fork Nooksack River
Fresh snows along the North Fork Nooksack River
Fresh snows along the North Fork Nooksack River
By now, my jacket, gloves, and shell pants were getting close to saturation which signaled to me that it was time to go home. It wasn’t the greatest of days but it’s another check mark in my attempt to really know the 5+ mile stretch of the river between Nooksack Falls and Hannigan Pass Road. It’s been a great experience getting to know this area more in depth. I’m usually surprised at what I discover and it’s often no more than 30 yards from the busy highway.

Eagles and Winter

Now back in more familiar territory, I headed out to explore a certain stretch of the North Fork Nooksack River that I attempted previously. Before that, however, I decided to swing by a part of the river which was recommended as a bald eagle viewing area by users of a hiking forum. The location is the Mosquito Lake Road bridge over the North Fork Nooksack River bridge:

View Larger Map in New Window
On this rainy morning, I counted about 8 eagles including 2 juveniles. Almost all of the eagles were perched high up in the adjacent trees so my 300mm lens comes up just a bit shy. Some of these photos are cropped versions of the originals so that the eagle fills the frame a bit more.

Click for a larger view
Click for a larger view
Click for a larger view
Click for a larger view

It was now time to move on so I drove up the Mount Baker Highway to the turnoff for the Wells Creek Road and Nooksack Falls. This winter I became intrigued with a stretch of the Nooksack upstream of the famous falls where the river flows through a deep gorge. Accessing this stretch of river is not without hazard because the only entry points are at either end of the gorge or down the steep side slope. During a previous attempt, I worked my way through the forest to the downstream end of the gorge but eventually cliffed out.

On this outing, I followed a small drainage gully down to the river’s edge and then followed it upstream. Despite being at the water’s edge, I met a similar fate. Entrance to the gorge was prevented by a cliff wall and swift currents of the river. If I am to enter this gorge, it will have to be from the sideslope or the upstream edge of the gorge. During my stay, the snow began to fall really hard. Given the longer exposure times I was using, this added some banding artifacts to my photos..

North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River

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