Twin Sisters

Waiting for Auroras

Late afternoon high above the Baker Lake valleyAuroras are trademarks of the high latitudes such as Alaska, Norway, and Canada. It is much rarer to see them at the lower latitudes of places like Seattle. After a tremendous solar burst last week, that’s exactly what was forecasted for the weekend. Sometime in the early 2000s, I saw some aurora activity from the front yard of my house in Everett and it was mesmerizing. I desperately wanted to capture the auroras above some of our fine northwest scenery.

There have been some near misses in terms of seeing auroras over the last couple years and that gave me some time to figure out where to go. Over time, I finally found my “spot” in the Baker Lake vicinity of Mount Baker. My location looked to have a great view of both Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker and was fairly accessible. Predictably, the weather slowly degraded as Saturday arrived. Clouds would be bad enough but persistent afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains really threatened to ruin any chance we had.

Clouds and the Twin Sisters range in late afternoon light
Partial view of Mount Shuksan in late afternoon lightAs the afternoon went on, the storm activity seemed to tail off and so we gave it a go. Surprisingly, the Forest Service roads were bone dry; the thunderstorms never dropped their payload in this area. Despite some concerns about having to hike on snow to our destination, everything ended up being snow free. Even better, the site I had researched turned out to be great. Mount Baker remained cloaked behind thick clouds but Mount Shuksan had a horizontal slit across its mid flanks. I think the struggling optimists inside of us hoped that the pockets of blue sky were the beginnings of a clear night sky.

Below us, the Baker Lake valley was filling with clouds and gradually creeping up the valley sides. Sunset drew closer and closer bringing color to the various clouds across the sky. As daylight continued to fade, so did our hopes for clear skies in this area. After sunset, the clouds finally swallowed us whole. It was still early enough to come up with a Plan B. It was tough but some reports of clear skies back down in Snohomish County lured us back closer to home. The Mount Pilchuck trail head was our Plan B and two hours of driving later, we were there.

View across the Baker Lake valley in late afternoon
Twin Sisters range and clouds as sunset approaches
Twin Sisters range and clouds as sunset approachesClear skies were directly overhead but clouds filled the northern skies. no auroras were visible to the naked eye. Or were they?…..While taking some night shots, my peripheral vision seemed to catch a shimmer in the sky. Clouds were still thick so I wasn’t sure what I saw. On one of my shots, there was a small green orb. The auroras! Sadly, that would be all that we would see. It was now pushing 2am; we now accepted the bitterness of defeat and drove home. Hopefully soon, the skies will cooperate and we will capture the auroras. One of these days…

Mount Baker's east slopes and a cloud filled Baker Lake valley
Mount Baker fades from view
Mount Shuksan at sunset
The summit pyramid of Mount Shuksan pokes above the clouds at sunset
Aurora borealis peeking through cloudy skies at Mount Pilchuck

Lesser side of Mount Baker

If you’ve visited my photo galleries, you will notice that Mount Baker (and the Mount Baker area in general) is a favorite subject of mine. The vast majority of Mount Baker compositions are taken either from the north or from the south. The west side is seldom seen and for a good reason- access to viewpoints is severely challenged. While a forest service road (Road 38) provides some access to the area, the surrounding ridges and peaks largely lie in private ownership.

One day I was exploring the area with Google Earth and I found a ridge spine which seemed to offer a great view of the mountain without any logging activity in the foreground:

Google Earth view of the west face of Mount Baker
Even better, the spot looked to be a short hike via a decommissioned logging road. On this holiday weekend, I headed out with a friend to put boots on the ground and find out if the view lived up to my own hype. Before the actual hike, I made the brief side trip up the Clearwater Creek valley to show my friend the huge unnamed waterfall I discovered earlier in spring.

Waterfall spilling into Clearwater Creek (portrait view)
Waterfall spilling into Clearwater Creek (landscape view)
Full sun provided its natural challenges with shade and full sun in the same frame. I scrambled down to the creek’s edge to shoot the lowest tier of the waterfall which empties directly into Clearwater Creek. Fortunately, it was early enough in the day that this spot was still shaded by the steep canyon walls. This creek really holds some photographic promise but this brief introduction indicates it won’t give up its goods easily. Water’s edge is mostly bedrock with little to no margin for cross country travel. I might make another trip here later in the summer once the water levels subside a bit to spend the day.

Waterfall spilling into Clearwater Creek and creekside reflections
Having reloaded back into my truck, we headed off and up the logging roads to our destination. The Middle Fork Nooksack River valley is nestled between Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters range. The higher you go, the better the views of the Twin Sisters become. The higher I went, the more neglected the road became. The alder alongside the roads became thicker and closed in. My truck received many new scratches thanks to the alders.

Davidson's penstemon (Penstemon davidsonii) along a logging road high above the Middle Fork Nooksack River
Just when the views of the Twin Sisters couldn’t get any better, Mount Baker finally came into view. The summit was wrapped in cloud but the Black Buttes were visible along with the Coleman and Thunder Glaciers. We arrived at what I determined to be our “trailhead” and we could see our destination only 0.7 miles directly across from us. The sun’s rays were heating up the day (hey- this part of the country hasn’t experienced warm weather for almost 260 days!) and after finding the best entry point, we dove into the forest to pick up the old logging road.

The road’s beginning was still fairly well defined thanks to its notching into a hillside. The upslope side still had a drainage ditch and the downslope side of the road dropped away. By the end of the day, we joked to ourselves that the best way to tell where the road was located was to look for one thing: Sitka Alder. It seemed to ONLY grow within the boundaries of the old roadbed. Where it grew, it grew thick and vertically straight (at least initially!).

The road had several culverts (which were removed and set aside on site) which created a series of small obstacle courses. Each crossing required climbing down and back up, all the while crawling over, under, and through alder and willows. Despite the constant slaps in the face by branches, I felt we made good progress. I was able to frequently check our progress using my Motion-X GPS app, which I had prepped for this outing my caching the aerial photos from our hike. This turned out to be a good thing because the ground conditions at times didn’t seem to coincide with what we saw on the ground.

About halfway out we crossed the one true creek in the area and the uphill began. At this point, I also ran out of flagging. Since there was no trail, I brought a bunch of pink flagging strips which I would periodically hang on alder branches to mark our route. I didn’t bring the entire roll with me and hoped that the route would become more obvious and not require flagging. It did break out into some open stretches but the groves of alder continued to dominate and hinder our travel.

After more brush, we reached an old road junction which signaled the start of our more strenuous ascent. My friend had been leading our incursion into the reclaiming forest and by this point, was starting to feel its cumulative effects. We slogged on until we met a junction with a slide path. We took an extended break as I consulted the GPS to determine where we were. I estimated that we could save some distance by traveling straight up the slide path (which joined the last road switchback) but it would obviously be more immediate elevation gain.

We decided to try it since it was clear travel in comparison to the alder slapfest we were enduring. About what we thought was halfway up, we could not definitively see the road switchback above us. I was feeling physically better so I huffed up the remaining distance to scout it. Huzzah! Success. I topped out onto the last road switchback and passed that fact on to my friend. He pressed on and soon enough joined me there. At this point he was really wiped out. I knew we were close so I told him I would press on the remaining distance. If I had a great view of Mount Baker (which I never really knew for certain I would), I was going to blow my emergency whistle four times……..


I walked back towards the landing to blow my whistle again and make sure he heard me. I started to see some of the alder branches shake so I knew he was coming towards me. We strolled around the corner and began to enjoy the view:

West face of Mount Baker and the Warm Creek drainage
West face of Mount Baker and the Warm Creek drainage
Mount Baker west face detail. Marmot Ridge in the foreground
Once again, the summit was capped by clouds but they were fluid. Shortly after setting up my gear and taking my first few shots, the clouds parted over the summit. It was a brief moment but one that was repeated several times during our stay. The view was tremendous and definitely was as good as what I had seen using Google Earth. Below us was the Warm Creek drainage and the creek has an impressive waterfall that drops about 250 feet. It added the perfect accent to the uniform forest in the lower left portion of my wide angle shots.

Assassin Spire on Lincoln Peak, Mount Baker
Large 250 foot waterfall on Warm Creek
Mount Baker west face detail. Marmot Ridge in the foreground
I had an obligation later in the evening and we were running behind schedule. As amazing as it was, we had to turn back. Lost in all of my narrative here is the amazing view of the Twin Sisters. Once again, this side of the Twin Sisters isn’t commonly seen. Before packing up for good, I spent a few minutes taking some photos:

North face of the Twin Sisters
South Twin Sister and the Sisters Glacier
North face of North Twin Sister
Sister Divide and the bowl containing Lake Wiseman
Sisters Glacier detail
The rewards were over and the tribulations began once again. Having flagged most of the route, it helped us on our return journey. Both of us were definitely stumbling around so we resorted to traveling from flag to flag. Despite the severe fatigue, we made good time on our journey back and in one glorious moment, crashed back out of the brush and onto the road where we parked hours before.

My truck from seemingly a world away (but technically 0.7 miles distant)
I would love to return to this spot in the future (although I think I might need to convince my friend to join me!). The big thing I learned from this outing was that this trip can’t SAFELY be done as a sunset or sunrise dayhike attempt. I can only imagine what kind of angle or knee sprain injury would be awaiting me while hiking in the dark. A nice campsite high up at the last road switchback exists but any water would have to be obtained at the lone creek crossing and hauled up to the campsite. All in all, a very successful discovery!

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