Wells Creek Road

Nooksack Fall Color 2011

Although somewhat late, fall color has definitely returned to the North Fork Nooksack River valley. This past weekend I headed up the valley to check out conditions at two locations- Mount Baker Highway near Church Mountain and the upper Wells Creek valley. My first priority was a neat spot I found which gives a commanding view of Church Mountain across the valley. A few years ago I noticed a drainage / slide path which was predominately deciduous. I knew if I timed it right, I would be treated with a great splash of color. This year was the year!

Fall color on Church Mountain and the North Fork Nooksack River valley in the North Cascades
Fall color on Church Mountain
Fall color on Church Mountain and the North Fork Nooksack River valley in the North Cascades
The fall color starts mildly while heading north along State Route 9 past Acme and Van Zandt and started to get better as I headed east on the Mount Baker Highway towards Kendall and Maple Falls. Beyond Maple Falls, the color (primarily the Big Leaf Maples) really start to pop. The color isn’t “perfect” color so you’ll find plenty of blackening leaves along with the yellows and oranges. As I got close to my Church Mountain viewpoint, I finally see through the trees that the color in the slide path was brilliant yellow. I made the short hike to my vantage point and began shooting.

Mount Baker Highway fall color
Fall color on Barometer Mountain
Fall color on Barometer Mountain
The sun was out and was casting some distracting shadows on the lower forested slopes. I spent awhile shooting different compositions before deciding to pack up and head someplace else. Rejoining the Mount Baker Highway, I made my way to the Wells Creek Road turnoff. Between Glacier and the Wells Creek Road, the Big Leaf Maples along the highway are in near prime color. Based on this, I drove up into the upper Wells Creek valley.

Snowpack from last winter near Dodd's Cleaver on Mount Baker
Sholes Creek near Mount Baker
Sholes Creek near Mount Baker
A few miles in, the road turns a corner and you’re treated to a rocky cliff face with a variety of color splashes from Big Leaf Maples and Vine Maples. Although I’ve taken the roadside shot before, I elected to scramble up through the talus to access the upper rock field. While shooting this local scene, I could see further up the valley that the sun was really making the fall color glow. Before reaching the Wells Creek Falls vicinity, I was amazed at the sight of some devastation caused by a massive avalanche off of Barometer Mountain this past winter.

Fall color in the Wells Creek valley
Aftermath from a massive avalanche off of Barometer Mountain last winter
The slide path was a couple hundred yards in width and the slide itself looks to have reached all the way to Wells Creek itself. Impressive sight! The road continues past Wells Creek and then crosses Sholes Creek, marking the end of the “maintained for public travel” portion of the road. Shortly after the bridge is a nice clearing in the forest which provides huge views of the valley and Barometer Mountain. The day was getting long and I had to head home. On my way back, I stopped at the bridge over Sholes Creek to experiment with some compositions.

Fall color along the Mount Baker Highway outside of Maple Falls
Fall color along the Mount Baker Highway outside of Maple Falls
Hopefully the color will last through the weekend. Seems like there were still plenty of trees with pale greens which could develop over the next few days. Forecasts are pointing to potential frost overnight as well!

Wells Creek one last time

Halloween is the last day that Wells Creek Road is accessible beyond Nooksack Falls until the following July 1st. I had to head into Bellingham to purchase my Mount Baker season pass so I decided to head up Wells Creek one last time this season. Fall color has been making a bit of an appearance in the lowlands so I was a little hopeful that I might see some of that up in the mountains.

Most leaves have dropped so the remaining leaves that were in fall color didn’t quite have the same impact or appeal. I continued onward back to Wells Creek Falls. My last visit was on a very rainy day in July. Battling both the rain and downspray from the falls, the photography was tough going. Today, however, was dry and the creek was running just a tad lower making the crossing a little easier.

Click for a larger view
I hiked back to my original vantage point and then continued around the corner into the waterfall’s surrounding bowl. Getting closer did provide the best view of the falls but also brought me even closer to the downspray. These conditions require some patience and thinking in order to obtain a good photo. Here’s my procedure:

  • • Before beginning, make sure you have some items handy: several microfiber cloths (for lens cleaning & drying), a hand towel, and perhaps a clear ziploc type bag. In addition, I find it helpful if the tripod ball head has 360 degree markings on it.
  • • The first step is to determine exposure. To save myself some lens cleaning, I put the ziploc bag over my lens and then tried some test exposures. At this point, I just want to get into the ball park and I’m not worried about focus. Once I know what the exposure should be, I switch my camera mode to Manual and dial in the proper f-stop and shutter speed.
  • • Now it’s time for focus. Basically, the lens will get wet with spray so be quick with determining your focus point and focusing. Once you have focus, either stay away from the focus button (I disable shutter button focus lock on my camera) or switch to manual focus.
  • • Since the lens is getting spray on it, you might as well as determine your composition. Once I had my composition set, I noted where the tic mark on the ball head was located (one notch before 315, etc..).
  • • Next, I swung the camera around so that the lens was not directly in the spray. I put the lens hood on and then drape my hand towel over the camera. This helps further shield the lens as I wipe it dry and let the rest of the moisture evaporate.
  • • Now that the front of the lens is dry and clear, I cover the front with the hand towel (the lens hood keeps the towel from slapping against the front of the lens) and then rotate the camera back around. Since I noted which tick mark the camera was at when I composed the shot, I know exactly where to point it WITHOUT exposing the lens to the spray.
  • • I set my camera to a 2 second timer so all that’s left is to click the shutter and then remove the towel a split second before the shutter opens. It takes a little time to get into the rhythm of things but it definitely helps you get the best photo with the least amount of annoying water droplets!

My first vantage point was so close that I knew I needed a short shutter speed. I normally like to shoot at ISO 100 but that would have been far too long of a shutter speed (creating too many water droplets). For this shot, I increased my ISO to 400 which brought my shutter speed down to 0.3 seconds:

Wells Creek Falls
After a taking a few variations to make sure I got the shot, I moved back to my original vantage point from back in July to take some more shots. Despite being further downstream, I still collected water drops on the lens so I repeated the process I described. I experimented with both landscape and portrait versions:

Wells Creek Falls

Wells Creek Falls
The afternoon was getting long so I packed up and headed back to my truck. I wanted to get a better look at the slopes of Barometer Ridge since they were flocked with fresh snow. A mile or so beyond the bridge over Sholes Creek is an open roadside with a nice view of Barometer Ridge. The sun was out and clouds were drifting upwards from the valley floor…

Clouds rising up from the Wells Creek valley

Clouds and the Sholes Creek valley

Fresh snow and Lasiocarpa Ridge

Fresh snow on Barometer Ridge
The summit of Mount Baker was almost- but not quite visible. I enjoyed the stillness and the surroundings but soon it was time to head home. I tried stopping by a waterfall on the way out but found it unsafe all by myself. Not a ton of photos but a good outing with my new Pentax K-5.

Which reminds me…..I’ll be out of town for the next week. I’m headed to attend the Banff Mountain Festival where one of my photos will be on display! I’ll be spending a couple of days in the Banff area so I’m hoping for some good photos!

It is fall..

…but it’s not very obvious. At least not in the North Cascades. After spending the day bouncing around the North Fork Nooksack River valley, I suspect that fall colors will be disappointing this year. Labor Day weekend was my last outing so I was eager to get out again. I decided to attempt to revisit a section of Ruth Creek with a friend in order to access some more difficult terrain that I know would yield some great photos. Forecasts were leaning towards nice sunny weather but I decided to give it a go.

On the way, we stopped off to check fall color conditions on Church Mountain:

Fall colors begin - Church Mountain
Fall colors begin arriving on the upper slopes of Church Mountain
The forecasted 63% cloud cover was more like 0-10%. The stretch of Ruth Creek proved to be quite formidable and our attempts to enter it’s guarded treasures were futile. Despite wearing chest waders, I only managed a few photos from here:

Ruth Creek
Ruth Creek
Defeat came quick but there was still a fair amount of day left. We poked around another forest service road before ending up at Artist Point with hundreds of other tourists. It was tough being there and watching people pick wildflowers and wander wherever they chose to.

Early fall color on Excelsior Ridge
Snags and fall color - Kulshan Ridge
Mount Shuksan from Kulshan Ridge
Mount Shuksan from Kulshan Ridge
A storm front was coming in (witnessed by the very strong winds at Artist Point) so we both thought there might be a chance for a striking sunset. I decided we should head to Cougar Divide to try our luck. We made haste to the trailhead and arrived about an hour before sunset. About a half hour later, we had arrived at the viewpoint that I like to shoot from.

Mount Baker from Cougar Divide
Summit of Mount Baker wrapped in clouds
Sunset started wonderfully with a cloudcap and other clouds swirling around Mount Baker. To the east, Mount Shuksan’s summit pyramid was already firmly in the grip of cloud cover. Back down the Nooksack Valley a cloud bank was building up, adding to the interest. I promised my friend solitude at this location but we ended up running into 7 others at the viewpoint! Most left upon our arrival and, after a few minutes, we had the place to ourselves.

Mount Baker from Cougar Divide
Approaching front from Cougar Divide
Just prior to the point of brilliant pinks and peak sunset colors, it all shut off like a light switch. I suspect the sun dipped behind a cloud bank along the horizon which shut us out. This seemed to be confirmed by looking north towards Canada where we could see the pink colors that were eluding us!

Storm clouds after sunset - Cougar Divide
Storm clouds after sunset - Cougar Divide
I spent a few more minutes after sunset taking some shots before we made our way out. The moon was rising to the east but I couldn’t capture any decent shots. The day was done and all that was left was the long drive back home. That, and replacing the flat I got just prior to crossing the Wells Creek bridge. I really hope that the fall colors arrive!

It is August, isn’t it?

It’s the end of the first week of August and we’re still waiting for the wildflower blooms at Mount Rainier. The forecast of clouds and rain negated any hopes of grand views or sunsets so it was back into the deep forests of the North Cascades. I originally thought about revisiting some locations in the Highway 2 corridor but I remembered that there were a number of “firsts” for me to still visit up in the North Fork Nooksack River valley.

I came across another website that’s devoted to Pacific Northwest waterfalls and it clued me in on a few waterfalls along Twin Lakes Rd as well as an intriguing waterfall along Wells Creek Rd. Back around July 4th, I had made a visit to the Wells Creek area and attempted to photograph Wells Creek Falls. I was thwarted by thick huckleberry brush and limited views from above but I was determined to make it upstream this time thanks to a pair of waders.

The first stop was the new waterfall located a couple miles upstream of the Wells Creek / North Fork Nooksack River confluence. It is roadside accessible but the actual location is a bit dangerous due to the steep drops into the creek. The biggest appeal to this waterfall was a monolithic rock which rises 10-12 feet above the creek immediately below the falls. On this day, the water levels were pretty high so the rock was submerged for the most part. The weather definitely provided a feeling of fall with the low clouds, steady rain, and the distressed colors of the huckleberries in front of me.

Fungus - Wells Creek Valley
Fungus - Wells Creek Valley
Wells Creek
Wells Creek
These photos of the waterfall are unfortunately soft due to an accident in which the Manual Focus / Auto Focus switch had changed to manual focus while the camera was in my backpack and I didn’t catch the mistake. No matter- I plan on returning later in the fall when levels are lower. From here, it’s just another couple miles up the road to Wells Creek Falls. I slipped on my waders and proceeded up left (or north) bank. About halfway up, my friend & I decided to cross the creek at a short pool stretch of the creek. At its deepest point, the creek was about knee deep but still had a fair amount of force behind it.

It turned out that this was the only fording of the creek required to reach the falls. We arrived at the entrance to the waterfall’s amphitheater and were greeted with a driving rain AND wind driven spray from the waterfall itself. This was going to be a challenge to photograph. I found a spot next to the creek and set up. Any time the lens was exposed, it would immediately accumulate water drops. I lucked out and got the exposure combination correct on the first try (0.5s @ F16) but I had to reset everything a couple times in order to set my circular polarizer correctly and make sure the camera was level.
Wells Creek Falls (landscape version)
Wells Creek Falls (portrait version)
Each time, I had to swing the camera around 180 degrees, wipe off the lens, cover the camera and wait for the residue moisture on the lens evaporate. When ready, I kept the camera covered and swung it around to set up for the shot. I would press the shutter to activate the 2 second timer and wait for the absolute last second in order to remove the cover. This worked well enough to minimize the effect of water droplets in my finished photos.

Wells Creek
We ended up spending a fair amount of time at the falls and were well on our way to becoming waterlogged. This day really felt more like October than August! Our next stop was a lovely two part waterfall along Twin Lakes Rd which is unofficially named Gold Run Falls. At the very top is a 100 foot drop over a series of angled ledges (it reminded me of a pachinko machine so I dubbed it Pachinko Falls). Below this, the creek travels steeply down some angled rock formations.

Steady rain made things miserable. We had good success photographing the lower portion but the main drop proved to be problematic due to the near vertical angle required to compose the shot. I managed to take one water drop plagued shot before beating a quick retreat back to the truck.

Unnamed creek - Twin Lakes Road
Gold Run Falls
It was later afternoon and we were pretty much water logged. I decided to make one more stop in the valley and visited the lower stretch of Bagley Creek where it meets the valley floor. There are supposed to be some nice waterfalls in this area so we headed that way. We initially missed a turnoff and stopped at a spot along Bagley Creek just upstream of it’s confluence with the NF Nooksack River. This spot is downstream of the waterfalls but it proved to be a beautiful stretch of creek with what looked to be its own waterfall drop in the distance.

Bagley Creek
Bagley Creek
Bagley Creek
It was late in the day so we didn’t have time to explore the upstream section of this stretch. We did, however, retrace our route and followed the correct turnoff to reach the location of the waterfalls. The dense forest and steep slopes prevented us from pursuing things fully but there was indeed a very nice stretch of drops and waterfalls. We’ll need to return a later date!

Summer in the Nooksack Valley

I spent the day before July 4th traveling around the North Fork Nooksack River valley. I was primarily interested in several waterfalls but I also revisited a small creek that I haven’t been to in a while. The weather was perfect for photography (cloudy and dry) and was a mixture of success and setbacks. I had hoped to find a possible vantage point across from Nooksack Falls but that did not pan out on this trip. I also had hoped to photograph Wells Creek Falls from creek level but that also did not happen due to high water and too many water crossings to gain entrance into the falls’ amphitheater. The last setback was getting cliffed out while bushwhacking up Deadhorse Creek to Deadhorse Falls. If the falls are your goal, follow the LEFT (or east) bank upstream. The right side is easier travel initially but becomes a very steep cliff face as the falls come into view.

On to the successes..

Clouds shroud the upper slopes of Church Mountain
Cascade Creek
Cascade Creek
Cascade Creek
Cascade Creek
I made a quick stop at Nooksack Falls to shoot a summer version of a photo I took a few winters ago. I’m very happy with the end result:

Nooksack Falls
I’ve shot a particular creek that flows into the Nooksack immediate above Nooksack Falls a number of times throughout the winter but have rarely visited the stretch of creek located upstream of the Mount Baker Highway. The higher flows right now made conditions more conducive for a visit:

Un-named Creek
Un-named Creek
Un-named Creek
And now…..Wells Creek Falls. It’s somewhat visible from Wells Creek Road and located just 1,000 feet upstream of the road. How hard can it be? Well……….VERY. Photographing the falls from creek level can be done but is best suited for fall when the water levels are lower. On this day, the water was running deep enough to discourage fording since the hike would require several fords across the creek to gain entrance into the waterfall’s amphitheater.

From about the halfway point between the falls and the road, my friend and I looked up and weighed my options. Both sides were steep walled ridges but we decided to go with the right hand side. We huffed it back out to the road and then crashed into the forest. I’ve crashed through some huckleberry dominant understories before but this was unreal. The huckleberry was thick and 6 feet tall. Negotiating this was a huge drain on energy. On the flip side, the floor of the forest was quite prolific with bunchberry in bloom (no photos, though!).

After a lot of scratches and brush crashing, we arrived at the location of the falls. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear vantage point due to the thick forest. Here’s what I was able to capture:

Wells Creek Falls
If I didn’t believe it before, I do now- the Wells Creek drainage bites back!

Return to Cougar Divide

With my abbreviated trip earlier in the week, I decided to take advantage of it by heading back to Cougar Divide to wait for sunset. I thought the coming low pressure system might bring in some clouds to add some flavor and interest for sunset. The pending storm system actually traveled quicker than I had expected and left me with mostly gray skies for sunset. I had the entire ridge to myself this evening with the notable exception of mosquitoes. I was somewhat surprised to discover that the bugs on Cougar Divide were just as ferocious this evening as they were during my last visit several weeks ago. This is definitely one of the buggiest locations I’ve visited here in the Pacific Northwest..

Cougar Divide Panorama
Mount Baker from Cougar Divide
Mount Baker from Cougar Divide
Mount Shuksan from Cougar Divide
Cougar Divide Trail
Sunset to the west
Mount Baker from Cougar Divide

Cougar Divide

What’s worse than forgetting your camera?

Forgetting the memory card AND bringing the camera. Such is the reality I dealt myself this weekend as I arrived at the trail to Cougar Divide. More on that later..

This trail lies at the end of Wells Creek Road at about 5,000 feet and is only accessible for 4 short months of the year. I use the term accessible loosely because the road receives little to no maintenance (particularly after the bridge over Wells Creek). Still, as of this writing, the trailhead is still accessible with only one stretch of road that could unnerve the average driver or someone in a full size pickup.

Only one other car at the trailhead but TONS of mosquitos which should have been my first omen. I had sunscreen but no bug juice. Somewhat annoying but how bad could it be? Uh, BAD. Just 15 minutes in on the trail brings you to a viewpoint which would make any other hike worth it:

Mount Baker from the Cougar Divide Trail
180 Degree Panorama from Cougar Divide Trail. Mount Shuksan (left center) and Mount Baker (right center)
Small meltpond along Cougar Divide Trail
In this open subalpine forest, there are many interesting geological features:

Volcanic Rock along the trail. Skyline Divide in the background.
More Trailside Geology
After a brief open stretch the trail plunges back into forest before reaching meadows. On this particular day, however, my journey ended here in the woods:

Along Cougar Divide
Taking that three photo panorama resulted in my legs being devoured by mosquitos. Given the fact that I couldn’t use my primary camera, I decided to turn around and save the rest of this hike for an upcomming weekend. So what do you do when you can’t use your camera? In my case, I decided to press on and use my iPhone 3GS so every photo from this blog post is an iPhone photo. I thought it didn’t do that bad a job, though I did lighten the photos up in Photoshop. Live and learn!..

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